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Innovation, the Great Urgency of Contemporary Sport

17 Sep 2021   ·   

For many years, focus was placed in the adoption of new technologies both in all areas of sport and in business management, considering the relationship with customers—in this case, fans. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that sport needs new strategies based on innovation. It can be observed that, due to the closure of stadiums, the sport industry entirely depends on the live game.

In a low-income situation, it has been revealed that expenditure control is a priority that cannot be established without using new tools, such as Artificial Intelligence, in many areas of management that, until now, followed traditional methods. At the same time, concerning fan loyalty, sports clubs are facing the greatest challenge of all time. New generations have the largest entertainment offer available, and both winning them and keeping traditional fans are vital to not decline and keep on growing.

In many areas, this challenge can only be addressed from one perspective: innovation. Innovation should simply be understood as a process by which a new, unexplored, viable and useful formula is found to solve a problem. At a corporate level, innovation is developed to increase revenues and position brands. According to Doblin’s wheel of innovation, a company that studied 2000 cases of successful innovations, there are three premises for innovation in a business: Its configuration, which includes the offer made to customers and the relationship established with them. In sports organisations, this translates into improving the performance of athletes and intensifying or increasing the entertainment of fans.  

Anne Tjønndal, from the Nord University in Norway, distinguishes five types of sport innovation: social, technological, commercial, community-based, and organizational. In the first type, the social one, innovations occur when facing social problems. On many occasions, sports have been implemented to promote integration, fight gender inequality or in peace missions. Technological innovation in sports refers both to the upgrade of the sports equipment and the broadcasting of events and participation in sports, as in the case of esports. Commercial innovation is related to products and services offered by sports organizations, as well as sponsorships and strategies that help boost revenues. Community-based innovation is focus on the proximity effect that a club has, and the activities performed by its foundations or corporate social responsibility. Finally, regarding the organizational type, innovation happens when the institutions that organize sports practice, such as federations or tournaments, are reformed; this occurs constantly, for example, due to the inclusion of new disciplines in the Olympic Games.

Currently, the most important changes in sport are arising from technological innovation. Initially, sports such as cycling or rowing, which required sophisticated tools for their practice, were the sectors where technology had the most room for growth. However, it now plays an essential role in all sports sciences and helps gain competitive advantages. Despite this, technological advances in sport are very complex because they cannot be made without the user’s or athlete’s feedback or an analysis of their experience, so they have to be implemented in the long term allowing an environment which fosters its development.

In a programme carried out by Barça Innovation Hub, Innovation in Sports, together with BIHub director Albert Mundet, Ivanka Visnjic, professor at ESADE, and Steve Gera, BIHub US ambassador and Gains Group CEO, in the section Becoming a Sports Innovator several examples are studied, which include how, with a clever use of technology and the application of creative ideas that break with traditional frameworks, there are clubs that have achieved not only significant changes in their structures, but also remarkable advances that have already been incorporated by the rest of the institutions in the sports community. A current case of big data application is that of the Toronto Blue Jays, a baseball team that has adopted a single evaluation criterion of the players in training sessions and scouting in order to define their current talent and that which they need.

In football, the transfer deals that are negotiated in Europe have doubled in the last decade. The recording of games with autonomous cameras, computer vision, AI and databases will allow scouting tasks to be carried out with more precision in the short term. Moreover, the possibilities that an incorporation of a player does not meet the expectations or requirements of the team will be reduced, resulting in expenditure optimisation.

Similarly, when elite players cannot play due to an injury, clubs also increase their unproductive expenditure. In this area, research projects are discussed in the course, such as the one coordinated by Gil Rodas, responsible for Health and Wellness at Barça Innovation Hub, which aims to measure the players’ internal load through monitoring physiological biomarkers (blood, saliva, body temperature, etc.), and their external load by means of devices used during the training sessions. By knowing the potential fatigue in detail, the goal is to detect the phases of higher injury risk during a season and to be able to prevent them. Concerning tactics, FC Barcelona has also developed different projects related to data analysis that aim to provide coaches with tools to better communicate with players and satisfy the demands of a game model. These innovations aim to take advantage of the potential talent of an entire team.

On the commercial side, clubs come across more obstacles in order to build a younger fan base and to keep older fans so that they support the team with the same passion. In the coming years, more creative strategies will make a difference. For example, the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team designed T-shirts equipped with a chip. By scanning it, fans obtained discounts at the club store and other establishments. With this in mind, not only was there an increase in the sale of T-shirts, but, on match day, all the fans were wearing them, which visually was outstanding.

For FC Barcelona, a goal in this area is the transformation of its premises into smart facilities. In order to do so, the club launched a pioneering project together with the city’s supercomputing centre (Barcelona Supercomputing Center). Through pioneering data management, the new Camp Nou and Espai Barça will enhance the fan experience to the point of shortening all the distances they have to travel and providing them with stores that have the most demanded stock for their profile, among many other services, such as an even more effective security management of the stadium.

These types of measures do not necessarily have to be individual. In American baseball, the Major League Baseball created the MLB Advanced Media in 2000, in which every team invested $1 million yearly during four years with the aim to start a digital strategy; they raised a total of $120 million. In this way, websites, databases, and spaces to look up overviews and statistics of the games for each team were developed, leading to an increase of up to one million visits per day. The success of this model, in accordance with technological advances, allowed the creation of BAMTech in 2015 with live broadcasts. Two years later, Disney bought 75% of this company which is now valued at $4,000 million.

On the flip side of the coin, there have also been big fails. In 1996, the NHL (National Hockey League of the United States) designed a system to measure the strength of the attempts on goal during a game. With a board and some sensors on the puck, the power at which it was released from the stick was displayed in colour on the screen. Unfortunately, the crowd did not respond well. Traditional hockey spectators rejected it because it was not serious enough for what they demanded, just like a videogame. The project was dropped in two years. However, by trying this technology with other people, it could be observed that it did attract other fans with different profiles, and, with its application in other sports, the foundations for the augmented reality effects were set, which are now essential, for example, in American football broadcasts. Besides, mistakes are not always a bad experience; they can be part of another phase of innovation that can lead to solutions to other problems, although they had not been proposed at the beginning. As Ivanka Visnjic suggests, innovation processes should be agile and part of simple experiments that do not need great investments. Then, if they are successful, they should formulate more complex hypothesis.

The key methodology to manage innovation initiatives is employing tools such as Design Thinking, which detects and solves the user’s problems, and Lean Start-up, an iterative process that allows the project to be fed back with the experience of the users. Nevertheless, besides the technique, it is important to understand that an innovation process cannot be completed hastily. An innovation cannot be fast and simple, especially in sports. “It is about people, and they are difficult to change,” states Visnjic. In many cases, the goals will be long-term and there will be progress, but in other cases, there will be phases in which it will be necessary to go backwards. There is no need to be afraid of making mistakes as failure is also a way to move forward. It is part of the innovation process and, sometimes, it is a necessary requirement as in the case of the NHL. It will never be considered a problem if people know how to learn from it effectively, but as Jason Pottsa and Vanessa Ratten concluded in a study for the journal Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, the effectiveness of innovation in sport requires, primarily, that leaders to be aware of the potential implications of its development.

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