It’s been documented in books, TV shows, and Hollywood movies, and it is a prominent aspect of cultures past and present. Our abundant enthusiasm for sports is undeniable and continues to stand the test of time. As the world of sports matures and embraces new technologies to bring the competition closer to the fans, sports disciplines worldwide are starting to use heightened engagement as a tool to captivate fans. This trend can be attributed in part to the increasing competition between sports organisations, which are under constant pressure to entice new audiences to boost their sponsorship revenues.
The viewer experience
The experience associated with sport is one that unites people and brings out unprecedented levels of passion. Whether it’s attending games, playing, watching from a device or talking about sport, loyal followers are invested in it. Just like any form of entertainment, sports have had to evolve and grow with the desires of their loyal fans. If sports were played in the way they once were, the variations would be a far cry from what we see today, so it’s no surprise that as an industry it has continued to evolve, with technology spurring on many of the changes. Although it was once a case of sports themselves maturing in the way they are played as new resources became available, it’s now about the fans, and the role of technology to take over and change the fan experience.
Getting sport that people love delivered to fans in a way that is convenient to them and with an increased level of engagement is becoming more of a reality for many sporting mediums, and one that immediately comes to mind in the US is Major League Baseball. MLB.tv offers fans a more economical way of viewing all major league baseball games, direct from MLB and without the involvement of a separate broadcaster. It means that games can be watched on whatever platform the user prefers, be it mobile, tablet, live or on-demand. Baseball is one sport that has worked out what its fans want, and created packages that give them no lack of platforms to engage with and keep updated.
Entering the virtual world
Like it or not, baseball, football and all kinds of sports are everywhere, and fans want to watch them, keep up to date or consume related content anytime, anywhere. While it’s generally accepted that fans will stream high quality content from an array of devices, the newest innovations in enhancing fan experience are taking a few by surprise, in particular because a concept that was dreamed up decades ago is now coming to the fore. The passive sporting experience is no longer the only option for fans, as virtual reality starts to make waves in the world of sport.
An example of this was recently demonstrated by O2, the company’s Wear the Rose initiative was the first fully immersive 360-degree virtual reality sports experience. That might not mean much on the surface, but using the Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) technology, the company allowed fans to immerse themselves in what was described as a multi-sensory takeover and feel part of the England rugby team, even allowing fans to appear as though they are training with the team. It took the idea of bringing fans closer to the action to a whole new level, and is just one example of how new technologies such as virtual reality will open new doors in amplifying the fan experience.
And it doesn’t stop there. In the USA, NFL and Verizon Wireless have worked together to create the NFL Virtual Reality Experience. For the first time in 50 years, the NFL Draft is being held in Chicago, an event that is being marked with new technologies to build on the experience throughout the epicentre. At a special venue located in the NFL Draft Town, a number of Gear VR headsets will be offered out to users, loaded with an application that offers unique insight into the life of an NFL player. From stepping foot on the pitch, to pre-game prep and the height of NFL stardom, scoring a touchdown, fans will be able to experience it from a unique perspective, all thanks to VR.
There are streams of innovation going on from a virtual reality perspective across all different sectors related to sports, including gaming, in particular EA Games. The CEO of the company in question previously expressed interest in how people consume VR. Captured by the idea of the marketing tagline ‘It’s in the game’, Andrew Wilson has said that he’s pushing his team to explore the idea of VR in gaming either via a headset or a hologram in a player’s front room. As the second largest video game publisher in the world and the label owning the iconic FIFA series, it’s exciting to imagine what this could mean to gaming, sports, and a number of other industries.
Coming to a stadium near you
As gaming companies combat the changing technology landscape to enhance their offering, Wembley stadium has started to deploy technologies inside the arena, which will build on the overall experience for the viewer. During the FA Cup final in May, select groups in the boxes within the stadium were able to call up multi-angle plays on tablets, within a minute of it taking place on the pitch. Added extras such as access to contactless payments and ordering snacks from their mobiles meant that the control was put in their hands, the experience was completely tailored to what they needed, an experience crafted by them and not bound by bad timing, cues or a distorted view of the grounds.
In Germany, the Veltins-Arena is said to be an incredible display of mass-entertainment technology. The multi-purpose stadium sells itself as the ‘most modern venue in Europe’, and is home to a range of the latest technology. This includes a video cube, which floats in the centre circle, and presents images in high resolution to the audience at every corner of the arena. It also offers electronic access control, allowing visitors to enter through electronic turnstiles, as well as the ability for visitors to pay with a Knapp card, a smart card that takes payments and replaces cash, cutting down the queues throughout the venue.
Harnessing social media to bring fans closer to the action
It’s not only about creating new fan experiences through futuristic VR technologies and state-of-the-art arenas. Sports organisations are also bringing their audiences closer to the action through initiatives like the F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize. It aims to not only spur technological advancement in the sport, but also to engage with F1 enthusiasts and the technology community in a new way. F1 teams are also increasingly harnessing social media platforms to create a sense of togetherness with their fans, and taking engagement to new heights. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team – recently confirmed as the 2015 Constructors’ Championship winners – is a great example of this.
To celebrate Mercedes’ success, we worked with the team to invite fans to share their messages and pictures on Twitter and Facebook, which were shown on a high definition social media display in the team’s garage. The huge displays that stretch the length of both sides of the garage at every Grand Prix, showed messages from fans the world over at the Austin Grand Prix, congratulating the team on their brilliant season. The numbers speak for themselves: with 210 million mentions for the hashtag #wonmoretime, it is evident that Mercedes’ fans relished the opportunity to engage with the team in this way. And the team loved it too. Nico Rosberg summed up their feelings well, saying “Using this technology is a great way for everyone – drivers, team and fans – to celebrate the championship together. I’m very grateful for the enormous backing we get from our fans and I can't get enough of the messages in the garage!”
Transform sport as we know it
It’s evident that at the heart of many of these technologies is the ambition to elevate the fan experience, and what more and more companies are realising is that this often lends itself to a greater need for digital interaction between fans and their team. While not all stadiums will have the resources to outfit themselves in incredible technology, the benefits of creating an environment – in the real world, virtual world or social media – to connect the individual and the team, the sport and the loyal fan base, should not be taken for granted. The question is, which medium and more specifically sports organisation, will be the first to truly crack these technologies and to transform their field as they know it?
While delivering sport to fans all over the world was once a tale of one man and a television, or one fan and the pitch, the chance to become immersed into the wondrous world of sport is greater than ever, and is surely set to create a fan experience more inclusive, adrenaline-filled and powerful than ever imagined.
By Mehul Kapadia, managing director of F1 business Tata Communications