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Volume 23 No. 18
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Relying on a tech turning point

Expectations of future generations will drive sports to innovate, customize and broaden the fan experience, whether it’s in venue or on the screen.

On Dec. 12, more than 70,000 fans at M&T Bank Stadium marveled at what appeared on video screens during a Baltimore Ravens Thursday night home game: a giant digital image of a raven soaring through the air and then sitting atop the goal post crossbar. When shared on social media, the Ravens’ video of the feature amassed nearly 4 million views.

Is the Ravens’ mixed-reality display a preview of how sports fans’ world of tomorrow will be transformed?

As technology continues to evolve at a rate that accelerates each year, 5G cellular networks — which enable delivery of large amounts of data at astonishing speeds — and artificial intelligence promise to unlock previously unimagined doors for fans to enhance their experience in venues, in living rooms and anywhere else they choose to consume sports.

Over the next two decades, technology will emerge to fit the habits of what will be the two most important generations in the sports economy: millennials and Generation Z. Through interviews with more than a dozen league and team executives and sports technology innovators, one consensus crystallized about what to expect from sports technology in 2040: Increased personalization and engagement will be at the heart of what fans will seek and receive — all in real time. 

“The themes are choice and customization,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president of strategy, technology and innovation. “We are going to move away from a world where there is one way to consume the product to a world where there are 10 to 20 ways to consume the product. That’s what fans are going to come to expect: optionality and customization.”

Sports technology of the future will take shape at the same time teams and leagues across almost all sports confront significant headwinds in their ability to attract fans to live events. Amid declining attendance numbers across several sports, namely college football and MLB, technology — and perhaps a giant digitized raven flying around stadiums is a start — is expected to play a large role in  countering that trend.

“We have to make sure that whatever we are offering on TV for the viewer at home, that we are offering close to that experience in the ballpark,” said Lou DePaoli, the New York Mets’ executive vice president and CRO. “Or you’re just going to see people say, ‘Why would I go when I could just stay home?’” 

A reason to show up

 

Several teams, especially in baseball, have already begun to think creatively, trying to appeal to younger generations by offering ticket packages that give fans access to more varied social experiences in venues. Offering more communal in-venue experiences is a step in the right direction but likely not enough.

Technology for fans in stadiums needs to catch up, and teams know it.

The Mets, for instance, have had several discussions the last few years with augmented reality vendors. DePaoli said he watched the Ravens’ animated mixed-reality showcase with great interest. And he noted that in March an augmented reality display of a wyvern — a mythical dragon-like creature — appeared on the world’s largest LED baseball scoreboard in a Korean Baseball Organization stadium. While clearly innovative, it is just the beginning of AR possibilities that will aim to both entertain and inform fans. 

“The pitcher is doing his thing and the crowd is engaged with the dragon. OK,” DePaoli said. “If that is what it takes to get younger fans involved, I think the key is not just to have a dragon flying in, but at some point, how do you use it to augment the actual experience of the game? I think that will be very important.”

But there is a fine line separating cool and gimmicky. As Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, succinctly notes: Gen Zers “can see through bull.”

“They are really skeptical about brands and hate inauthenticity,” she said. “They are digital first but they have a really sensitive BS meter.”

The Dallas Cowboys earned positive reviews for early experimentation with AR potential after AT&T rolled out its 5G wireless network at AT&T Stadium in February. Fans who attended Cowboys home games this season were able to participate in AR scenarios that placed them beside their favorite player by using a Samsung Galaxy S10 5G smartphone. 

5G, and the technology that it empowers, is going to give fans a reason to return en masse to venues at some point, said Blake Davidson, the founder of Charlotte-based Game Seven Partners, which works with brands on strategy and business development.

“You have to make it a really special experience,” Davidson said of executives’ challenge to bolster attendance in the future. “We are going to be in a world where you’re either looking through glasses that are really easy to use, or some other device, and you’re going to see a lot of data and different things that enhance the overall experience.”

Access to information

 

After growing up with social media and mobile devices, Gen Zers are not enthused about one-size-fits-all experiences. They already consume sports differently. 

Jim Cavale, the founder of INFLCR, which helps build brands for college athletes and college athletic programs through social media, added that Gen Z sports fans are much less likely to spend three hours attending or even watching live broadcasts of one entire sporting event. They are much more likely, he said, to follow it in real-time on social media. 

The younger the generation, the more they seek a one-stop shop for all information needs. Ask Don White, the co-founder of the AI-powered engagement platform Satisfi Labs in New York, whose own children always want to know why virtual assistant Siri doesn’t have every possible answer and why they have to ask any human any question when they attend games.

“One comment was, ‘How come when I’m home, I know what’s going on, and how many points that guy has and that he is 10 steals away from a record but when I’m next to you at the game, I don’t know all of that?’” White said. “Why is information pushed to the viewing audience and not to the live audience?”

The same applies for instant replay reviews. Fans in the stadium often are the last to see the definitive camera angle that home viewers have access to. Technology is expected to change that. Imagine a future sports world where a smartphone — even without use of an app — will be capable of providing a multitude of information and video with a simple voice command, and do it immediately, far beyond what virtual assistants can do today.

By 2040, Luke Ritchie, head of XR & Interactive Arts for Nexus Studios, believes fans may be accustomed to wearing contact lenses or light eyewear while attending games. The eyewear, he said, would enable fans to not only see enhanced data and graphics, but it will be personalized to their preferences, much like Instagram photo filters.

“It will render high-end graphics over a 5G connection — that’s reasonable,” he said. “And there is no reason that as fast as you get a broadcast TV replay, that you can’t project on the left side of your eye the replay that you want to see. The in-home experience will be brought into the stadium experience.”

White is looking forward to the day when you can tackle your entire pregame checklist while driving to a game (or relaxing in a self-driving car) with the help of a virtual assistant: Order ahead for your kids to eat at the stadium and have food arrive when they get seated; buy groceries to arrive at your house when you return; upgrade your tickets to club-level suites and even improve your parking spot after receiving an alert that one lot is already full. 

The virtual assistants, White said, “will be your remote controls for life.”

Customized viewing experience

 

When fans watch games at home, either streaming on a secondary screen or on a large primary screen, the key will be personalization. From graphic overlays on telecasts to a seemingly infinite array of camera angles to the ability to choose or even be your own broadcaster and attract a following, the only limitation will be fans’ imagination.

Already, NBA TV offers a streaming option to watch games that include commentary by influencers. What’s more, Second Spectrum’s player tracking technology is providing fans with statistical overlays. 

As the NBA’s director of programming and content strategy, Sara Zuckert believes 5G will unlock a “whole world of opportunity to us related to the telecast.” In the summer of 2019, the NBA for the first time delivered a broadcast provided entirely by smartphone cameras using 5G mobile technology and enabling new camera angles to capture on-court action. 

As 5G continues to be rolled out, “you’re going to have the incredible ability to create really amazing sports viewing experiences that you can take anywhere,” said Jeff Gerttula, executive vice president and GM of CBS Sports Digital. “It will just be really easy to watch whatever you want to watch wherever you are. The quality of the stream is going to be at a level that we really can’t comprehend.”

Photo: nbae / getty images / photo illustration by liz spangler
Photo: nbae / getty images / photo illustration by liz spangler
Photo: nbae / getty images / photo illustration by liz spangler

For those who believe that the future belongs exclusively to streaming, here’s a contrarian view. The late iconic former NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a lengthy September interview with Sports Business Journal that, while society’s current focus is on streaming and what’s possible on mobile, innovation will eventually lead to the return of the so-called Big Screen. 

“Why are we busy with these second-screen experiences — how about the first screen?” Stern said. “8K in a 70-inch LG Samsung, Sony, whatever? My God. Maybe I’m a captive to my history, but why would I want to watch the NBA Finals on my iPhone when I can watch them on my 72-inch, Dolby surround-sound connected TV? It’s going to come back. The pendulum is going to swing.”

Regardless of screen preference, one innovation that MLB’s Marinak foresees is artificial intelligence and machine learning taking home-viewing fans from game to game each night. Press a play button and let a computer decide what live action to show you because it knows you’re a New York Yankees fan or a Mike Trout fan or a lover of bases-loaded situations in any game.

In the sports world of tomorrow, technology will customize the experience to suit fans’ preferences. 

“It’s more personalized highlights, more personalized overlays and packages depending on how avid of a fan you are and how much data and information you want when you’re watching a game,” Marinak said. “Viewers can pick what is most compelling for them, and you can extrapolate that over the long run to be a truly personalized experience with dozens and dozens of options so that you can consume the content in a way that’s most compelling for you.”