The relationship between sport and fans was already changing before the Covid-19 pandemic took its seat in the stands - driving fans out of them in the process. Fan engagement technology was becoming steadily more prominent.
However, awareness of its variety and accessibility was low. The ‘new normal’ that suddenly arrived in 2020, and the way it forced rights holders and stakeholders to quickly adapt and adopt more digitally-focused fan engagement strategies, changed this. If technology has been the engine for gradual change in the way that fans interact with sport, the Covid-19 pandemic has been both the fuel and the spark to accelerate it.
So, if 2020 was one of the most unprecedented years we’ve seen in sport, what can we expect for the one we’ve just entered? Here are our five fan engagement predictions for 2021:
1. The acceleration of direct to fan business models
The impact on sports organisations wrought by the pandemic has been stark. In some cases, revenue shortfalls have been estimated to be between 30 to 40%, whilst Two Circles have estimated that global sponsorship rights fees are set to drop 37%.
There is a flip side to this gloomy outlook though. We are likely to see a further increase in the shift to digital business models.
In December we did a seminar with ThinkSport and the City of Lausanne, as part of which we polled more than 100 International Federation (IF) representatives. The results revealed that the number one priority of IF's was innovating their business models, beating other innovation options such as delivering a new service, product or event. This shows an appetite from sports rights owners to find ways to leverage their IP to create on-going engagement and reduce reliance on matchday engagement and revenue.
Growth in terms of engagement and consumption will come in various areas but two to particularly watch out for are in Esports and Betting / Fantasy. Betting and fantasy sports, already on the up following recent legislative changes in the US, has inevitably increased with fans spending more time online looking for touchpoints with the sports they love. From an Esports perspective, companies like Dreamhack Sports Games and Eleven Sports are entering the space and building value by elevating sport simulation as a media product and vertical in its own right.
2. Digital viewing becoming more social
There was a time not so long ago when the closest you could get to seeing what other fans were thinking and saying when watching a game at home would be to scroll through a social media feed or via the odd quick message to a friend. Now, there is an increasing expectation amongst punters not just to have a good viewing experience but to be able to digitally share it with others.
Watch together experiences have quickly gone from being in the middle of a trial period to becoming a core part of the modern media broadcast line-up.
The changes are already being seen by the likes of BT Sport who recently launched ‘Watch Together’, a new innovation allowing users to watch, see and chat with friends in a split-screen view across different devices while streaming sporting action off BT Sport channels. More and more sports rights owners are also now empowering social experiences on platforms like Twitch. This will all combine to create a richer, more immersive and interactive live viewing experience in 2021, a point supported by responses to the recent PwC Sports Survey 2020 which revealed that 86.5% of sports industry professionals believe this will be the case.
3. Digital sports participation going mass market
A key thing to emphasise after all that has happened in sport over the past 12 months is that many of the changes in the use of digital technology were not a mere short-term solution. They are here to stay.
Digitally participating in so-called "hybrid" sports events such as marathons or triathlons is a natural move forward for the industry, and in 2021 we will see this continue to evolve. For brands and rights holders, tapping into the desire of fans to challenge themselves to run a triathlon or cycle a leg or two of their favourite race, will continue to be facilitated digitally long after the pandemic is gone.
Training platform, Zwift (which partnered with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) in 2020 to deliver the first ever hybrid Esports cycling event), amongst others, will continue to pioneer relationships with rights owners to bring more of the mass participation events we love into our homes.
4. The increasing importance of data trustworthy rights owners
As more and more digital fan engagement tools enter the market, the opportunity to collect invaluable personal data from fans rises, with the internet becoming the all-encompassing arena for the sport-fan relationship.
Yet to use an old Marvel comic saying, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’, meaning that whilst the chances to capture strategy-informing personal data has increased, so has the need for rights holders to respect it and be conscious of privacy. Stakeholders need to prove they can be trusted with personal data in order to ferment these closer digital connections.
With the availability of AI tools to capture and analyse data, rights holders can drive enhanced personalised content offerings. However, they should not let opportunity blur understanding of the legislation around data protection and privacy. If data collection is done in a secure way and in line with data protection legislation, AI technology and the insights it can unearth will be an essential element in a more sustainable sports industry in 2021.
5. Creators are the new currency
In one of our recent Virtual Pitching Event’s Carsten Thode, Founder of Aphetor, emphasised that traditional sport has been suffering from ‘The Innovator's Dilemma’, whereby the previously successful broadcast model has struggled to adapt to the challenge of connecting with new digitally-savvy (and younger) audiences.
The solution to this problem comes in the form of the myriad of talented content creators able to provide the material that engages these varied audiences. This year the fruits of legacy media revenues will continue to be bountiful but new disruptive models will continue to enter and shake up the market, driving the innovation that keeps the sports fan engagement industry so exciting.
Technologies that equip rights owners to harness the power of user generated content and put creators in control, whether they be athletes, other influencers or fans, had a breakthrough year in 2020 and will become even more prominent in 2021.
Last year was an unprecedented one for sport but 2021 offers an opportunity to learn from and build on the knowledge that was gained and the fan engagement technologies that came to the fore.
As confidence in our ability to manage the impact of the pandemic gradually grows, we expect more rights owners to begin investing in growth again and to put fan engagement technology at the heart of these strategies.
We created SportsTech Match to help rights owners navigate a cluttered and confusing sports technology landscape. This also entails increasing the opportunities for them to find the right solutions at the right time to solve their challenges. If ever there was a year to get it right, 2021 is it.
If you are you a sports rights owner looking to find the right solution for your fan engagement problem then check out our marketplace.
Are you a sports technology product or service provider specialising in fan data, content and/or activation solutions? Contact us to be listed on our marketplace or to find out more about how we can support you with your go to market strategy and plan, and help you to grow your business.
Photo credit: Zwift & UCI