Tech is turning professional sports into data-driven, digitally-enhanced competitions but its biggest impact may be coming off the field.

Stadium attendances are dwindling and spectators at home are demanding an experience that traditional TV broadcasts cannot always provide. Social media, forums, chat services, gaming, podcasts, live streams, online highlights and in-play betting are providing both competition and complementary methods of engaging with the sport.

© iStock/anton5146
© iStock/anton5146

The sports industry is responding by creating new digital experiences for fans at home, in the stands or on the move.

Second screening

Second screening is one of the biggest changes to the sports viewing experience. During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, 77 percent of viewers were using a smartphone or tablet while watching the game on TV, taking away focus from one product but opening up business opportunities in others. 

The NBA is among the global leaders in digital fan engagement and has developed a range of new experiences for fans whose eyes aren't always on the court. The basketball league has fostered a social media audience that generates more tweets than any other sport in the world and embraced user-generated content, despite concerns of the threat to its intellectual property.

Read next: NBA digital media VP reveals how tech is transforming the fan experience

It has also introduced new forms of viewing, from vertical camera angles for smartphone audiences and a "Fans Only" telecast that provides a stream of fan-driven content in a graphic on the screen that includes social conversation, polls and live phone calls from viewers.

"You could think about broadcasts in the future on different topics," Samuel Farber, vice president of digital media at the NBA, predicted at the Leaders: Meet Innovation conference in London earlier this year.

"You could have one that's about fantasy basketball, or one about statistics, or if gambling became widespread and legal in the United States, you could have one about that. There's so many different possibilities. And people could more or less choose their own adventure when watching a game, which we think is incredibly powerful."

In the stadium

Data is another digital tool for fan engagement. Golf governing body the R&A uses it to pick the tariff times so audiences can view the biggest stars at primetime and to guide the layout of the courses, so fans can easily access the amenities they desire.

At The Open championship, the R&A worked with NTT Data UK to set up an enormous screen in the spectator village that displays streams of real-time matchplay data.

Emotional engagement is also attracting growing interest. Infosys developed a noise measurement system for the 2018 NITTO ATP tennis finals to track the loudest moments through the tournament. At The Open the next year, NTT introduced a similar system but added cameras to assess the visible reaction of fans and then automatically determine the highlights that spectators most enjoyed.

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The R&A has also installed kilometres of cables and around 600 wireless access points across the course to keep fans connected throughout The Open championship, which also helps the organisation collect data on the fans who use its website, app and membership community.

"A lady came up to me and asked where the toilets were. I was able to help her by getting her to download the app, thereby giving us data and pointing out how to route her way to the toilets," said R&A CTO Steve Otto. "Fantastic. I could have just pointed they were over there, but far better to get one more user on the system. It's all about adding value."

Digital businesses for teams and players

Leading sports clubs are turning into digital businesses offering a vast array of services, as Arsenal FC IT director Christelle Heikkila told CIO UK.

"We have a very successful charity, we're a multichannel retailer with three shops that are incredibly busy on a match day and a website selling merchandise to fans across the world, we have a partnerships team, and a dedicated CRM team," she said. "It's incredibly diverse, and technology touches all of those functions and all of those departments."

Read next: Arsenal IT Director Christelle Heikkila explains the role of data in football

These business needs have led Arsenal to develop digital fan experiences in-house. In 2017, the club launched an innovation lab for startups with ideas for supporters. Participants have included Peak, which uses data analysis to understand what influences website traffic, , a payment tech company that developed an online order system for foods and drinks deliveries in the stadium, and BotNation, which proposed an ecommerce chatbot.

In January 2019, Arsenal invested in one of the finalists, a sports content-focused ecommerce company called I Like That, which provides a range of online shopping features such as the ability to click on an image of a player on a website and automatically buy their shirt within the same page.

Players are also taking control of their digital messaging, as sometimes the stars can be more popular than their teams. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo's following on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook dwarf those of his current club Juventus.

In response, athletes are turning themselves into brands, through digital initiatives ranging from footballer Mario Balotelli posting a goal celebration on Instagram while still on the pitch to NBA basketballer Stephen Curry creating a docu-series broadcast on Facebook Watch.

Streaming on-demand

Traditional sports broadcasters now face stiff competition from digital upstarts. Facebook, Twitter and Amazon have all secured deals to stream major sporting events through DAZN’s live and on-demand over-the-top (OTT) sports streaming service. The company has ploughed billions of dollars into broadcasting rights for boxing, football, cricket, rugby and tennis across a growing range of territories as it aims to build the "Netflix of sports". 

In May 2018, they signed up former ESPN president John Skipper as executive chairman, whose previous employer has responded to the new competition by launching its own OTT platform, ESPN+, which has already become the exclusive PPV provider for UFC.

Sports associations are now following the lead set by broadcasters. Spanish football league La Liga, which unveiled the LaLigaSportTV OTT service in March and former Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan has suggested that the Premier League could follow suit by launching an in-house streaming service that would maximise its broadcasting revenue.

Read next: How data analytics is transforming sports on and off the pitch

OTT services have however faced technological challenges that the incumbents do not. Latency rates remain an issue and other technical issues can be disastrous, such as one that hit the paywall for $19.99 pay-per-view golf match between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, which caused the organisers to offer fans the match for free.

The providers nonetheless remain confident that their services are the future of sports viewing, as Georgina Owens, SVP of DAZN's IT service, told CIO UK.

"We started off by talking about ourselves as being an OTT company providing sports over the top," she said. "But we now to ourselves as being a sports broadcaster, because essentially the people that we're competing with all your traditional broadcasters like Sky and ESPN."