Sport technology used to mean connected stadiums, wearable trackers, performance analytics and software for player management. During 2020, the COVID pandemic drove the uptake of online fitness and health with the rise of Peloton, Zoom based fitness and yoga classes. With this new trend towards “connected fitness”, how should traditional sports clubs prioritize their investments in sports technology?
The priority is to recover revenues from attendance at events. The experience of ordering from Amazon is what consumers have learned to expect, and buying tickets for events needs to be as straightforward as that. Clubs need to revisit the basics of selling online – fast, responsive websites, simple pricing with very few options and immediate fulfillment.
Consumers now expect to be able to use smartphones for almost any process. Manchester City FC announced the introduction of mobile ticketing in late July, and this includes the ability to transfer a season ticket to friends and family for the matches you cannot attend. During the COVID pandemic, the use of contactless card payments increased dramatically.
Visa reports that over 65% of global consumers want to continue and increase their usage of contactless payments. They processed an additional 1 billion contactless transactions during the pandemic, and it is not likely to be a temporary effect. This trend opens the way for stadiums to eliminate payments by cash, together with all the costs and security risks associated with this type of payment method.
As buying tickets has become a simpler process, the match experience will have to also improve. Spectators have spent a lot of time watching sports online and now expect a more interactive experience than physical attendance at a match currently provides. Startups such as Immersiv.io can increase the emotional engagement of attending a match by giving fans a personalized and interactive experience using augmented reality overlays on the spectator’s smartphone. These overlays can provide player statistics like those expected from TV, as well as a digital history of the main events in the game.
A ticket can also be so much more than the “in stadium” experience. Hybrid events which create excitement via social media before and after a physical event can also increase fan engagement and the perceived value of the ticket. It’s all about trying to combine the best of both worlds: you get connection and engagement from the in-person side, while reaching a bigger audience than ever with virtual components. The NBA Virtual Fan Experience was a brilliant way of keeping ticket sales steady and engage audiences, all while the season schedule keeps on as usual.
Grassroot sports opportunity
In the longer term, professional sports clubs may need to reconsider their business model. Traditionally, a club trains a small number of elite athletes and then generates revenue through ticket sales and media rights to view the matches played by the professionals. These are relatively passive forms of fan engagement and miss out on the huge participation in grassroots sports, fitness and wellness.
If the purpose of a sports club includes improving the health of its wider community, then motivating participation at the grassroots level seems to be an important factor that is missing today. Academy programs sign younger players, but their objective is more about finding the next generation of professionals than engaging the whole community regardless of ability.
How much would a consumer pay to join a strength and fitness class led by a renowned player? Instagram stars rose to prominence during lockdowns with little professional support. This could be so much better with the branding and support of professional clubs. It would create new demand for professional players because character and personality would be at least as important as athleticism and skills. Perhaps these new skills will come more naturally to the next generation of professional players.
During 2021, for the first time, revenues from esports will exceed $1 billion. This is becoming a sport that professional sports clubs cannot ignore. One measure of interest in esports is the number of viewers on Twitch. Since Amazon bought the platform in 2014, the average number of concurrent viewers increased from 351 thousand in 2014 to 1.26 million in 2019. This was nothing in comparison to the growth driven by pandemic lockdowns. In 2020, average concurrent viewers surged to 2.1 million and continued to reach 2.8 million at the end of August 2021. The growth segment in esports is mobile games, led by Garena Free Fire and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG Mobile).
Adoption of technology is an important priority for professional clubs, but the “connected fitness” trend should make clubs pause and think about how is best to use technology to engage with their grassroots fans in new and innovative ways.