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Volume 27 No. 29
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If You Build It And They Don’t Come: Driving Fan Engagement Off The Field

As communities and industries around the globe reel from the impact of COVID-19, the sports industry has been scrambling to adapt. Sports consume us, unify us and command huge audiences — both on the field and off. However, with COVID-19 forcing change to the physical world order with state-by-state crowd regulations — with no real barometer on how vast these changes will be nor how long they will exist — there is an increasing demand for sports organizations to deliver smart and fast responses across the world. How we consume sports will never be the same. The “new normal” of tomorrow requires new methods and efforts to develop and retain fans.

As we look beyond the growing challenges of keeping athletes, necessary personnel, support team members and family safe, how do teams navigate the possibility of empty (or occupancy governed) stadiums that alter the field for marketers and the entire infrastructure of their successful organizations? Technology.

As the pandemic continues to evolve, the sporting world needs to dramatically change and adapt to the pace of the technological adaptation taking place. When it comes to innovative technology, there are three distinct areas that we need to focus on. 

1. The patch work — these are innovative applications that provide immediate impact but nonetheless are novelty for either cultural or technological reasons.

2. The early birds — these are the innovative advancements that are not fully developed for cultural or technological reasons but with technological advancements and slow cultural adoption these ideations very well may be pillars that won’t come to fruition for another 5 to 10 years in the future. 

3. The answers — these are the innovative applications that provide solutions today and are evolution friendly. They provide adaption versatility for the cultural and technological changes of tomorrow. These answers grow with you and your business challenges as they are deeply rooted in the ever-changing culture and their technology is evolution and integration friendly across the ever-growing digital landscape.

It is critical for the sports world to continue to inject technology and its advancements not only into the game itself but also league executions, team initiatives and fan engagement opportunities that too often fall into the novelty bucket. 

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are technological concepts that have been with us for decades. While they are still in their infancy when it comes to mainstream consumer adoption, leagues need to strategically rethink how to integrate these into touch points, as both will enable for a more creative and lifelike viewing experience. Although the concepts are nothing new, the technology that is essentially the infrastructure to those concepts is constantly improving, and in doing so is creating new applicative opportunities. 

Successful applications already exist. The military has used both for over 30 years in training doctors, especially surgeons, who use this technology regularly. Baseball teams can assimilate and incorporate at -home training as well. Most commonly, teams have used novelty applications such as simulating a stadium experience to allow a fan to sit in any seat in the house. Instead, the focus needs to be on an immersive world for the future that manifests meaningful interactions between players, fans, sponsors, team personnel, and community organizations.

Is the sports world ready for a massive VR/AR rollout at large scale in 2020? No, but they need to be thinking that way, even if the full societal adaptation of this technology, and in this form, is still some five years away. The future here is about more immersive VR/AR apps, fuller world experiences that start to be part of the everyday user’s world. 

What will help get us there? 5G networks and other emerging technology. This is an example of substantial technological advancements that are fueling innovation and connectivity unlike ever before. One could argue that 5G is also nowhere it needs to be for wide-scale adoption, but it is clear these networks will completely transform the way we digest in-stadium and in-arena sports, as well as enable wireless cameras, ultra-fast speed, and significantly decreasing network delay to expand creativity in fan engagement.

What needs to happen for today? You have to look at a league’s needs, the culture, and the technology — and you must look at their current state and how quickly they can ramp up offerings to ensure technological and cultural relevance over the next five years. Figure out how you can use innovative applications that provide solutions today and are evolution friendly, providing adaption versatility for the cultural and technological changes of tomorrow. Before the full VR/AR experiences mentioned above exist, it is extremely important to pay attention to technologies that seamlessly integrate across all platforms.

The common denominator across every digital habitat are the humans themselves and the virtual identities to represent those individuals.

With the world and the next generation of fans going virtual, avatars jumping into the conversation was inevitable — COVID-19 merely expedited the need and thus, the timeline. Now, these organizations must begin to establish their presence in the virtual world. In doing so, you’ll be able to understand if you have the appropriate solutions to address these questions:

• How do we represent players efficiently across all platforms and digital environments? 
• What do we do if players and fans can’t be in the same physical place? 
• How do we attract and speak to our future fans, Gen Z, Gen Y, and so on? 

As the world is continuing to adjust to a new normal, it is critical to not only address fan engagement, especially with the absence of at-game experiences, but also the diversification of future revenue streams — ticket sales, merchandise, sponsorships, events, pop-ups, educational and community moments.

Today, sports leagues are in a great position to take advantage of new technology like they’ve never been before.

Jake Becker is Avatar Agent at Genies, whose clients include MLBPA, NFLPA and NBPA.