Why The Metaverse Is Giving Sport Another Second Life

In his latest trip to the Digital Cafe, David Granger looks at how the metaverse is offering a new avenue for sport and providing it with another Second Life…

The Metaverse is the talk of the town, but how could this new digital alternate assist fan engagement, and who are the early adapters?

Anyone remember Second Life? Remember how a virtual world inhabited by square headed avatars promised, then sadly failed, to change how we interacted, worked and played? And bonus points for anyone who can remember the ING Renault F1 team’s Second Life island where you could, in 2007, virtually tour their pit lane?

Just like the Dreamcast, MySpace and LaserDiscs, Second Life, the innovation front-runner, was resigned to the dustbin of technological history… before the concept was resurrected in a new guise with a new brand and fresh attitude.

Welcome to the Metaverse.

And, while it may be that the Metaverse has become a confusing cliche before it had a chance to explain itself, it is the next big area sport is going to have to tackle.

“The exciting thing for sport is that the Metaverse adds another dimension where fans can engage and where athletes and federations can take part in that engagement.”

If nothing else, the global pandemic accelerated the take-up, if not the innovation, of virtual sporting experiences. From the sounds of the IPL cricket dubbed on to televised games with no crowds to virtual stadium attendance, the attempt to re-create the live atmosphere and emotion for spectators meant a slew of new ways to experience matches, games and races.

As crowds return, the spirit of that innovation momentum will spill over… into the Metaverse. But before everyone jumps the bandwagon, it’s worth considering what the Metaverse is. 

The Metaverse can include virtual reality (an environment which you enter and leave), augmented reality (which combines virtual and online) as well as the digital, cryptocurrency economy.

“They’ve [McLaren] also opened and extended the Roblox space for fans to explore their HQ, the McLaren Technology Centre, and buy (virtual) drivers’ overalls for online avatars.”

The exciting thing for sport is that the Metaverse adds another dimension where fans can engage and where athletes and federations can take part in that engagement. 

One of the biggest uptakes has been in Formula One. The combination of technology, innovation (and some might say, a slightly alternate take on reality) is a great fit for the metaversal motorsport.

Former F1 driver Roman Grosjean is now an ambassador for GP Metaverse a collection of 10,000 NFTs (non-fungible tokens) accessed via the eco-friendly Polygon blockchain. It also promises to support young drivers through racing academy scholarships while members – NFT holders – can take part in both virtual and real meetings and access exclusive content, raffles and giveaways.

Car launches were always an interesting part of the F1 season: from Red Bull Racing unveiling the RB7 on a cold morning in Valencia (I can still feel the chill in my bones) to a full-on classical performance from Ferrari, it was a chance to reveal the new while working out who’d been economical with the regulations during development.

This year McLaren went full-on meta revealing their 2022 contender via Roblox (ask your kids/nieces/nephews, it’s a metaverse video game platform) and in real life. They’ve also opened and extended the Roblox space for fans to explore their HQ, the McLaren Technology Centre, and buy (virtual) drivers’ overalls for online avatars.

McLaren launched their car for the 2022 season in the metaverse

As previously noted, Red Bull Racing has got in on crypto with Bybit and now the energy drink parent company has filed a trademark application indicating it plans to enter the metaverse. To what end? Well, speculation is that it could be NFT multimedia, crypto and virtual extreme sport action, as well as offering its own, branded NFTs. 

But then, you go through the above and this was how Renault F1 described things back in 2007: “The Renault Formula One team has decided to go virtual by opening up a space in Second Life… to give people a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a modern Formula One team, and includes a factory that replicates the actual team facility in England.”

Sound familiar?

All of which will, no doubt, be debated, dissected and discussed – and importantly explained – at the Emirates Stadium in London on June 28-29 at iSportConnect’s Web3 Summit.

You should book your tickets to be there. In person.

The Year Of Great Returns And Great Arrivals

In the final Digital Café of 2021, David Granger takes a look back at the highs and lows of another less-than-normal online year.

This was the year of great returns and great arrivals.

The return of crowds to sporting events after the empty stadia of 2020 was a welcome relief, the 2020 Olympics finally arrived, NFTs were an acronym we didn’t predict arriving in sport, bad behaviour at international soccer matches featuring England made an unwelcome return and mini-series and social shorts were hailed (by some…) as sport’s saviour.

So here, in no particular order are the digital highlights from 2021.

Potential Goldmine of the Year

NFTs (hands up how many people knew what non-fungible meant in January?) were the three letters which gripped a fair few. The idea of being able to own digital originals when scrapping content for free seemed as if it was the internet’s raison d’etre was an interesting proposition.

“F1 has never been afraid to be involved with money, so let’s see who has made the wisest choice of investment.”

But, from F1 teams to sports photographers, reclaiming copyright and actually making some profit from content made financial, if not ethical, sense. 

The New(ish) Partnership Seam to Mine

Cryptocurrency is enjoying a gold rush epoch in sport, and in F1 in particular. A $100 million deal gave Crypto.com exposure at races from the British Grand Prix onwards and follows a deal made with the Aston Martin team, as well as others in the paddock exploring this area, such as Red Bull Racing with Tezos, McLaren and Bitci.com, Alpha Tauri and Fantom.

F1 has never been afraid to be involved with money, so let’s see who has made the wisest choice of investment.

The New Saviour of Sports Award*

The claims that Netflix had saved sport (F1 with Drive to Survive and Basketball with The Last Dance) failed to understand two points. The first is that while it raised F1’s profile, it won’t necessarily increase the crowds watching first practice on a wet Belgium Friday at Spa. And it wasn’t exactly as if either sport needed saving. They were doing OK for the several decades before streaming.

It has, however, made some stars who might not have otherwise got the spotlight (driver Roman Grosjean and the excellently sweary Haas principal Gunther Steiner) and some members of the F1 Paddock appear a little too keen to be seen on camera.

The final race of the F1 season was testament to the notion that script-writers can never compete with sport – we always have the best narrative

Also, if docuseries encourage further participation, let’s hope the same logic isn’t applied to Making A Murderer.

(*spoiler, it’s not.)

The New Fanbase Data Pool

Fan engagement company Mediacells tracked audiences across 2020 and concluded that the reach of sport is bigger than ever thanks to the adoption of social by athletes and clubs.

“2021 was another year when digital technology helped these arrivals and returns and also the battle to host and promote sport.”

Take into account social channels which skew younger (such as TikTok), and more people watched the Italy-England Euro 2020 final match than England winning the World Cup in 1966. It’s now up to broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers to prove what return that means.

The Sticking-it-to-the-trolls Tweet of the Year

While sport continued to demonstrate its diversity, empathy and inclusion over the year, there were still trolls on the prowl. So, it was heartening to know that US Olympian and gymnastic superstar Simone Biles wins the award for the most liked celebrity tweet of 2021. A cool 1,376,285 and counting…

So, 2021 was another year when digital technology helped these arrivals and returns and also the battle to host and promote sport in the face of the continuing pandemic, and where innovation in broadcasting, partnerships, and interaction made completion and viewing possible.

Any ideas what 2022 is going to bring? Nope, me neither. 

Social Audiences Are Rocketing – Is This Quantity Over Quality For Sport?

In the latest Digital Cafe, David Granger explores a recent report stating that, while we wait for Facebook’s metaverse to virtually transport us to venues, non-traditional social channels are boosting audiences in big numbers.

Fan engagement company Mediacells has tracked audiences across three main sporting competitions this year: Euro 2020, Tokyo 2020 and the English Premier League. Through this research they’ve found that the reach of sport is bigger than ever thanks to the adoption of social by athletes and clubs. 

There are some interesting insights into non-traditional platform viewing figures. If you consider social media channels which skew younger (we’re looking at you TikTok), more people watched the Italy-England Euro 2020 final match than England winning the World Cup in 1966.

TikTok’s on the official UEFA Euro 2020 account were played 650m times and liked by 69m people. And then you can add on to that the England team’s official TikTok account on which 9 million people liked 40 official videos: that’s 2 million more than BBC iPlayer streams requests for the England final and 5 million more than on the ITV Hub service. 

It was a similar situation for the Olympics. The delayed opening ceremony in Tokyo drew the smallest audience for the event in the past 33 years – but, as Mediacells points out, there was a younger audience that was not immediately acknowledged in the headline TV statistics.  

Half of younger audiences said they were more engaged with Olympians who had some sort of activism platform. The most prominent was US gymnast Simone Biles who attracted more than 15 million Instagram interactions, a 460% growth in engagement, after she announced she would withdraw from some events. That figure again: 15 million.

The rise of short format social on TikTok and Instagram is also increasing reach beyond tournaments, through the first month of the English Premier League they saw a significant levelling up of smaller clubs in fan engagement. 

Premier League newcomers Brentford FC outperformed 15 of the 20 Premier League clubs on social, including Spurs and Arsenal, hitting more than 4.5 million plays from one TikTok – one excellent clip and a great caption. The social team deserves a pat on their back for that one.

Brentford FC’s viral TikTok of their emotional elderly fan seeing his team win a Premier League game for the first time.

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar coming soon, the roll out of new fan engagement metrics for sponsors is looking likely, according to Brad Rees, Mediacells CEO. “UEFA was the first football organisation to partner with digital entertainment platform TikTok, but will not be the last.” 

But will highlights reels, social clips and best-of series translate to an increase in core fans? Should the alternative audience platform spectators count towards reach and engagement figures for sponsors? And does it actually matter, since sponsors and partners are ultimately getting exposure to their target audiences and, via social at least, to that occasionally elusive younger demographic.

The Netflix series, Drive to Survive has, apparently, given F1 a promotional shot in its arm, but will fans of the series become fans in the grandstands on a wet Silverstone weekend? 

The series may indeed have reignited interest in the sport, and this is despite some of its flaws (it’s become too self-referential, management personnel are turning into self-parody and the faux commentary still grates). One current narrative is that the popularity of the series, despite these flaws, is saving Formula One and doing so with the tough to reach fanbase in the US. 

But, is it? The grand prix in Texas has been, since its inception in 2012, hailed as a triumph. But those 2021 headline attendance numbers deserve a little scrutiny. The capacity of the Circuit of the Americas is 140,000 but attendance was put at 400,000 – does the Netflix effect actually mean that no-one attended more than one day? 

There’s no doubt that splicing action content into shorter segments and condensing whole seasons into ten-part series will increase reach, but the return on this investment needs to consider context and importantly for teams, federations and especially sponsors how that translated to engagement with them as well.

You can download the full Mediacells Next in Sport report here.

How To Bring Big Broadcast Quality – And Marketing Money – To Every League

For our latest trip to the Digital Cafe, David Granger talks to Jean-Luc Jezouin, SVP of NAGRA Sports, to look at how sports broadcasting can be accommodated to those outside of the elite sports.

In this Digital Café we speak to NAGRA, a company who are supporting sport across the board get better access to broadcast technology.

What digital should do, more than anything, is democratise sport. What was once the preserve of the affluent or the established – live broadcasts, access to athletes – should be available to everyone. 

“The top 90 sporting leagues around the world are bringing in roughly $85B in TV and marketing rights in only nine sports.”

However, there is also a danger of an increase in the digital divide, with major leagues, federations and clubs taking more and more of the time, engagement and money from fans.

The top 90 sporting leagues around the world are bringing in roughly $85B in TV and marketing rights in only nine sports. Which means there are thousands of leagues in more than 800 sports which bring in an estimated combined total of less than a billion dollars.

There are good reasons for this: cost of technology, complexity of the live broadcast infrastructure, relatively small size of the audience and potential demand. But this also means there’s an opportunity to serve these sports, and change the way they are represented, broadcast and monetised. 

Enter NAGRA Kudeslki.

With a history which stretches back almost as far as television itself, NAGRA Kudelski clearly has pedigree, and they currently have more than 300 million subscribers on more than 400 million devices worldwide. And you don’t succeed for that long without a propensity to innovate. Which is why the company, and in particular its SVP NAGRA Sport, Jean-Luc Jezouin, looked at how they could expand their work in the sporting sector.

Jean-Luc spotted the gap in television rights for leagues and clubs a level below the most affluent and encouraged NAGRA to do two things: give access to the technology which high-end sport gives to sports which are outside the main four and also access to the lesser leagues for the bigger sports – think cricket in Germany. It means your village football team can get VAR, your student basketball team can post live, multi-camera shots of action in real time and those cricket teams in Frankfurt can broadcast their matches. And, on top of that, they integrated ways to gamify that content to give back to the fans. 

“There was the realisation that even if we give a perfect solution to many of our live situation, they may not really be able to use them.”

“We saw that maybe we could start serving the lower end of sport by packaging our technology and services as a one-stop shop,” said Jean-Luc. “But there was the realisation that even if we give a perfect solution to many of our live situation, they may not really be able to use them. We went another step which is to also operate it from a technical viewpoint, but also from a marketing point of view.”

It’s what Jean-Luc and NAGRA have described as ‘sport as a service’. “We tried to create a differentiated position, that also capitalised on all the technology we have in the room,” he said.

Jean-Luc Jezouin, SVP of NAGRA Sports

The technology uses cloud technology, broadcast quality coverage, mass customization of user experience, automatic content capture with Sporfie (A NAGRA Company), fan engagement and loyalty programs, to be infinitely scalable.

“In terms of customer facing it’s great. It’s very smooth app and website and takes all the important work right of what you have to do with the content, not only video but also data. And then in the backend it ticks all the boxes in terms of ability to monetize through sponsors, donors, or video subscription and pay-per-view. And then it’s all in the cloud, it’s super secure means the security is the same as the one we provide to the very top sports leagues,” said Jean-Luc.

NAGRA combines live streaming, highlights and instant replay with monetisation through advertising, subscription and CRM. And the outcomes mean that leagues below that top echelon can benefit from the same technology and potential revenue streams as those in the more affluent bracket. 

“For the fans of lower leagues and clubs which are not in the spotlight, they have access to great content and the opportunity to get involved through access, gamification and virtual challenges.”

For the sport it means bridging the gap between elite sport and grassroots/casual practice, better exposure and use of high-end tech at all levels and, importantly, for the fans of lower leagues and clubs which are not in the spotlight, they have access to great content and the opportunity to get involved through access, gamification and virtual challenges. And the latter, entertainment around the sporting event can lead to rewards which encourage and deepen fan engagement. It’s a win for the clubs, a win for the sport and a win for the fans. 

And, as well as the big leagues, who wouldn’t want to see VAR be part of Sunday morning village soccer? Exactly.

For more details on NAGRA, check out their website: nagra.sport

Time To Ditch The Press Conference Pantomime And Let Digital Do The Work

In this Digital Cafe, David Granger considers whether digital media means the press conference and post-match interview is no longer relevant. Or of any use. If you asked Ronaldo, Osaka and Bale, I think we’d know their answer.

When was the last great insightful interview or press conference you heard? One which gave greater context or meaning to the performance, an idea of how and why an athlete or team was successful?

Nope, me neither.

The trouble with both sides finessing the post-game interview so much, is that they have become as insightful and interesting as soap. The players have been media trained to ensure they give the right answers without giving away any team tactics or sensitive information (political or sporting) and much of the press have been carefully groomed by comms managers to ensure they’re onside before the press conference even kicks off.

Gone are the days of Kevin Keegan ranting at a journalist or when Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United made more column inches during the time he refused to speak to the BBC.

Where you will find insight is on their social channels… so perhaps it’s time to ditch the media conferences and pitch-side grilling and leave it to the players and the clubs to give their reaction on their own channels and let the media do with them as they will.

Exhibit One? Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese striker moving Coke bottles across a desk was the most memorable part of his conference at the Euro 2020 contest.

And if this is the most memorable part… A) it doesn’t say much for the rest of the conversation and B) his apparent reluctance to comply actually helped Coca-Cola.

“If the federations are compelling athletes to simply going through the motions, then what are the audience, the fans getting out of all this?”

Despite the popular mythology which sprang up, their shares did not drop immediately afterwards (the price drop was due to other factors and happened before the presser) and Coke did what any innovative brand would do in the aftermath of less-than-stellar PR: they turned it to their advantage. With user-generated content and a load of memes, more people were talking about the product and interacting with it than had Ronaldo simply ignored the placement while he deflected questions from the pack.

What the media did bang on about after the Ronaldo interview was his social reach (half a billion followers, roughly speaking), giving publicity to his own media power and ably showing how traditional earned channels are losing the battle against social.

Exhibit Two? Naomi Osaka

The treatment of the second best tennis player on the planet was an interesting exercise in how not to handle a story or a situation. When Osaka decided, for her own health reasons, not to take part in media rounds, she felt forced to pull out of the contest. Organisers took a sledgehammer to smash a tennis ace and robbed an athlete of a tournament, the fans of watching her play and where did she announce her withdrawal? On social of course. To her one million and 82 thousand followers.

The French Open organisers should have perhaps reconsidered how we got to this state and, importantly, just exactly what is the value of compulsory press conferences? Do they give any more context to Osaka’s game?

Exhibit Three? Gareth Bale

The Welsh soccer team captain upped and left a post-Euros interview when the question of his international future was raised (again).

Current Welsh manager Robert Page, called the question “insensitive” and stood by his captain’s decision to cut the interview short. Page said: “Why would he want to answer a question about his future? What is the point of asking that when he’s just come off the pitch after a defeat? Emotions are raw, so he’s done the right thing by walking away.”

(And, let’s face it, those post-match, pitch-side/track-side interviews broadcast to stadium and the world are the zenith of the pointless press interview. After 90 minutes, the last thing an athlete should be doing is explaining what went right/wrong in their best media-trainese.)

When no-one had the means to publish information other than the traditional media, then clearly there is a role. However, with digital publishing and social media outstripping its reach – and certainly its engagement – sport and sports journalism should ask itself if it’s not time to work out what’s working and what needs to change. If the answers are not interesting, if the questions are not insightful, if the federations are compelling athletes to simply going through the motions, then what are the audience, the fans getting out of all this?

Like 24 hour rolling news, quantity of sports coverage has resulted in some areas to a drop in quality, more content landfill, less insight.

It’s an old construct which no longer has value – teams and athletes now have the means of production and the means of distribution though digital and social. It’s time to ditch the post-match press conference pantomime.

How Sports Photography Is Using Blockchain To Fight Back Against The Pirates

For the latest Digital Café, David Granger looks into how new tech is being used to combat an age-old problem of making sure image rights remain in the right hands.

The digital revolution has brought great things to the world sport, but with a downside. For every chance to ditch linear TV and watch a legitimate livestream, there are pirate sites sending that same stream to non-paying spectators. For every great image shot, it’s illegally used or distributed hundreds of times. More open access opens up more opportunities for theft. 

Ever innovative, the digital world has found a solution: NFTs (non-fungible tokens). NFTs are unique digital assets which mean they retain their scarcity – they cannot be copied or divided, and their provenance is proved via blockchain technology, the same as crypto currency. They’ve been used in music, art and now one Formula One photographer Darren Heath is pioneering their use to ensure his work is rewarded, while retaining its value for him and anyone who purchases it. 

“It was one of the concerns of F1 back when social began – how do you control broadcast and image rights when everyone, regardless of whether or not they had accreditation, could take, produce and publish footage and photos.”

This might not stop less scrupulous curation sites copy-pasting images in general, but it does mean content producers are clawing back ownership, while creating new revenue streams.

Darren says: “It’s a result of the democratisation of photography that the digital world has ushered in, that many now believe image-use to be for free.” 

It was one of the concerns of F1 back when social began – how do you control broadcast and image rights when everyone, regardless of whether or not they had accreditation, could take, produce and publish footage and photos. The rights-holders answer initially was to blanket ban social, behind-the-scenes content, but gradually and steadily this has been reversed.

Can NFTs change all this? For Darren they are a way to ensure he is creating one-off images which retain their value. He was introduced to NFTs by his friend, California-based George Woods Baker who pointed out a potential opportunity. Chairman and CEO of his Intrepidus group of companies and Managing Director of PaddockAccess, George has been a long-time strategic advisor within F1.

“The ability to offer artistic interpretations of my photography via NFT platforms struck me as an opportunity,” said Darren. “The extended time away from working at racetracks due to Covid, allowed me to step back and appreciate where the industry is. I feel it’s time something new and exciting came along to shake-up motorsport imagery. Perhaps, interestingly, enhanced NFT offerings are just that. Recent restrictions on travel, and my inability to cover grands prix, have resulted in me having had to think creatively about other ways to remain relevant and continue to be commercially active.”

“While NFTs may not halt all piracy and theft of assets, it might be that the technology can be adapted and used to retain rights for creators, athletes and federations.”

While NFTs may not halt all piracy and theft of assets, it might be that the technology can be adapted and used to retain rights for creators, athletes and federations.

The Background How did you hear about NFTs?

“George (Woods Baker) asked me mid-March 2021 if I was aware of NFTs. I wasn’t, so did my research, quickly realising its potential. There are some slightly confusing elements to the digital marketplace using blockchain protocols, but once one gets a grip on the details it’s basically the same as any offline environment.”

Can you explain the process of creating, promoting and selling via NFT?

“There are very few photographers involved with NFT platforms. Perhaps the main reason is that if a professional photographer sold an original version of their work they’ll be unable to market that particular image again. It struck me the way around this is to manipulate the original photo and then offer this version for sale. The photographer isn’t then facing the dilemma of losing the ability to market original versions of their work for more conventional image sales. Promotion, like almost every area of commercial life, is key.” 

“The process of selling NFTs involves a traditional English auction approach with a reserve price being set. Once the reserve has been met, a 24-hour countdown begins with the top bid winning when the clock stops. Some sites trade in US dollars, but most use crypto currencies on a blockchain network.

“There’s no way I can sell my original – as shot – photographs as one-off limited edition NFTs and never be able to sell them again.”

“The winning bidder is sent a large file version of the auction lot accompanied by the blockchain certificate confirming ownership of the original work.”

Do you create the images differently for digital use and NFT?

“I do. There’s no way I can sell my original – as shot – photographs as one-off limited edition NFTs and never be able to sell them again. I apply creative technique, using Photoshop to manipulate the picture to alter the look and feel of the original. Starting to produce NFT work, I realised each photograph demands a differing approach, some responding well to extreme creative input, others… not so much.”  

Is this the way forward, will all prints be sold this way?

“Possibly. But there will always be a market for the printed image. I can imagine picture display technology that allows digital imagery to be displayed in ever more creative ways in our homes, at bars, restaurants, sports arenas.

“The rise of crypto currencies and particularly Ethereum – with the resulting ability of creators to directly interact with their followers and fans – will mean the future of art and commerce become combined and become the default marketplace.”

The Photographer: Darren Heath – “I shot my first Formula One event as a professional photographer at Silverstone’s 1988 British Grand Prix, so for 32 years plus being paid to cover the sport I’ve always adored has been my life. During my career I’ve photographed most sports one can think of from Formula One to football, from swimming to canoeing, and from horse racing to America’s Cup yachting, but at the end-of-the-day I’m known for shooting F1 in a creative and visually interesting way. The best places to find my work are my website: https://www.darrenheath.com and my Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/artoff1/

The Digital Cafe: Evaluating The Trend Of Taking Content Production In-House

In the Digital Cafe this month, David Granger takes a look at the trend of bringing content production in-house and the benefits and pitfalls of clubs expanding their owned channels.

Earlier this year AC Milan joined the growing number of clubs and brands in launching their own in-house production arm. As the promo videos proclaim, The Studios Milan Media House means they’re moving from a great football club to a global media company.

The model – in-house production, own-channel distribution, total editorial control – makes perfect sense. Beginning with digital and evolving with social, owning production and distribution has for the last decade been a way of expanding the remit of your communications department.

“Interestingly some of the major corporations are now moving the other way – re-working the model to outsource more and more content creation.”

In the wider world of marketing, this in-housing of content creation has been about for some time, and interestingly some of the major corporations are now moving the other way – re-working the model to outsource more and more content creation.

However, there are a myriad of advantages: control of entertainment, control over editorial and control of end-user interaction. For sport this is especially important. The narrative of the actual game, race or event itself is never certain – it’s what makes sport unique – so when you can’t control the on-field outcome, having control over the media output is even more attractive.

When Red Bull entered Formula One in 2005, the team which emerged from the ashes of the Jaguar (nee Stewart) racing team were unlikely at that stage to be a big challenger in the races*. But, where they did excel was controlling the narrative off-track: The Red Bulletin satirical paddock magazine, the launch parties, the Formula Unas, the film tie-ins were all PR generated for an F1 audience of millions when Red Bull Racing weren’t (yet) world championship contenders.

For AC Milan this is not, presumably, the sole reason for their expansion into in-house studios. They will potentially benefit from a new revenue stream (the facilities are available for hire to third-parties for their own  production), they can ensure fans get engaging, relevant, AC Milan content during and off-season, sponsors can be gifted new onsite produced content for their own digital and social channels . And they have a new venue as the studios are designed to host Town Halls, meetings with sponsors and team-working events.

So. Any drawbacks? Well, the benefits of in-house production and content control need to be balanced with several considerations. Firstly, the output has to remember who the audience is. One colleague I worked with in a previous life complained that some content was produced for “an audience of one” – essentially the management. They may have been brilliant at business acumen, but weren’t always the most savvy when it came to digital and social content (and as soon as the word content is uttered, let alone produced, everyone is a homegrown expert…). And anyone who has tried to create by committee will know the pitfalls. Owning the means of production and distribution is great, but fans can see through overtly corporate messaging or irrelevant sponsor contract requirements.

The other element in-housing production should address is ensuring there’s a broad perspective. Some clubs’ Comms diktat needs to be tempered with an understanding of what their fans will actually appreciate. Building a production company is not merely an extension of the social media intern’s iPhone footage. The technology of content planning, production and publishing (and the ensuing audience feedback to guide future production) is no small task and once established is no guarantee that fans will lap up every image, film or report.

The better content is also that which travels beyond your owned channels. Filming great behind-the-scenes content is all well and good, but its real value comes when it gets picked up by third-party publishers. The editorial needs to be good to warrant sharing by fans and distribution by third party media.

“The editorial needs to be good to warrant sharing by fans and distribution by third party media.”

It will be great to see how output changes with the launch of the Milan Studios. They’re promising a new perspective on the Rossoneri world which is exactly what a great Media House will deliver. Providing, of course, the output addresses the needs and wants of the right audience.

Post Script (H/T Mr Richard Clarke)

If you’re looking for great examples of engaging, in-house created content, then check out Ipswich Town who play in England’s Football League One (They may not have a Media House (yet), but their idea to send fans a photo with a view from their seat while crowds are still absent is genius.

Costs nothing, great interaction, (nearly…) user-generated, and produces a great thread of content and context as well. Check out the thread here: https://twitter.com/IpswichTown/status/1370389254740787202

*although, their maiden race did result in a David Coulthard fourth place and Christian Klien in seventh, so respectable.

Six Things We Can Learn From The Sport Industry’s Ingenuity

For this month’s Digital Cafe, David Granger takes a look at how Covid has been the mother of innovation, as sport turns to technology to compensate for a lack of crowds and enhance engagement. But how much of this will continue even post-pandemic?

The 2021 Sports Technology Awards look at how technology is used to further spectacle and engagement. The latter is the lifeblood for spectators but sponsors as well, so ensuring a continuation of that engagement, while sport was postponed or cancelled, required investment, effort and a fair amount of faith.

I was one of the judges for the Fan Engagement category and the long list was an impressive collection of innovative reaction to the Covid situation, but to how the relationship between sport and its spectators has evolved. What you see in the entries is that the ingenuity we as an industry possess is impressive.

Here are six things we can learn from some of the entries:

1 – AI will be an even more important part of being a spectator

While you would expect technical innovation to be part of the  make-up of esports, what ESL and Weavr are doing with augmented reality is impressive. Weavr lets fans ‘fly’ through virtual arenas, which is great to start with, but they have added a personalisation layer so the action, data and commentary from games can be tailored to the fan’s individual interests.

All this is done via a companion app with interactive broadcast overlays, live 360 broadcasts, studio segments, an extension for streaming platform Twitch and virtual reality. And while esports is the focus, there are plans to expand to traditional sport – which will really shake up the viewing experience. For more, visit www.weavr.tv

2 – Digital will be more important, and more available, to grassroots sport

The battle to survive for sports clubs is being fought at all levels. One initiative to assist both club and supporters is Fanbase. This app brings fans together by providing an efficient way to connect through mobile content while, for the club, it offers ways to increase revenue streams and engagement.

The fan opens their app to a personalised welcome, a view of their stats such as games attended, streams viewed and information on what they can access both digitally (content, digital programme, live stream) and physically (match ticket, discount in the club shop). The club can push content, digital products such as tickets or passes and push out matchday information and  physical and digital products to sell to the fan. It’s easy to set-up and customise making it available for clubs at every level. Ensuring the focus is on the relationship between club and fan means  both parties benefit from deeper engagement. A great concept, neatly executed. For more, visit www.fanbaseclub.com

3 – Virtual crowd engagement will continue to get more involved

The replication of live atmosphere was tested and tried last year, crowd noises in empty stadiums the most obvious example – although why there are still stadium tannoy announcements remains a mystery. The extension of this is how to involve those fans not attending a live event.

CrowdAmp uses the Filmily platform to connect spectators through the fans’ own recorded clips. These are collected into mosaics shown on screens at events or shared on social. According to the CrowdAmp team, these  videos can enhance the in-game atmosphere while  providing a  way of communicating with displaced fans worldwide. What will be of interest is how this is used post-pandemic; how remote fans can still feel a part of the spectacle. Find out more here: https://crowdamp.live

4 – Advertisers are going to get a more targeted offering

For sponsors of sport, effective – and by extension efficient – targeting is a major priority. Virtual advertisements for events in real-time means TV channels and federations can sell more advertising and sponsorship. Sponix developed ‘Virtual Advertisement technology’, a software technology for livestreams, which can be used for virtual signage, 3D sponsor logos, multi-regional ads and banner replacement – effectively using any space from tennis nets to soccer stadium hoardings to become sponsorship spaces without compromising the action – either live or streamed. For details see www.sponixtech.com/spboard-technology

5 – The second screen experience will become the single screen experience again

Sport Buff has combined both primary and second-screen experiences and integrated quizzes, trivial, polls, live stats and messages over the livestream. It adds a deeper level of knowledge, competition and engagement. And, the longer an audience stays and brings their friends into the experience the more they spend and the more they give permission-based data for further engagement. Sport Buff operates over live sports, archive, highlights, magazine, and studio content – driving debate, informing editorial, and running passively alongside traditional linear TV programming. Check out the work to date at www.sportbuff.com

6 – Fans are going to be offered more on the internet of things

The internet of things (where objects become connected) is still finding its way, but adding atmosphere to sporting events is one obvious market. Scorz has developed smart collectables which respond to moments in matches. You get your Scorz cup, fill it with the chilled beverage of your choice, select the league and team you wish to follow – then your Scorz Sync’d Cup lights up in team colours for every score and win. For more check out: www.scorz.com.au

The Sports Technology Awards is recognised as an international mark of excellence, it’s a unique celebration of technology-led innovation across sport globally. Founded in 2014, the Awards are now in the eighth cycle and were the world’s first celebration of the influential technology in the sports sector. They attract entries from 30 countries on five continents, across 50 sports. The results of this year’s awards will take place on May 6 2021, where they attract exceptional brands, guests and presenters. For more details, visit www.sportstechgroup.org

“AR Campaigns Won’t Succeed If You Don’t Invest The Time To Research The Value.”

In the first Digital Cafe of the new year, David Granger takes an augmented look into how AR is only going to get more important for sports teams, fans and strategists. Now where did we put that pair of Google Glass?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a sports fan who didn’t feel a twinge of nostalgia when Tottenham Hotspur played Marine in the English FA Cup this month. There were 162 places between the Premier League side and their opponents and, while no fans were allowed in the Northern Premier League Division One North West ground, along one side the neighbouring gardens which overlooked the ground were full of onlookers. Punters at games, remember them?

As it looks like normality in live sport is still some way off, augmented reality (AR) is going to get used more and more to enhance spectator viewing experiences. Exhibit One? Switch crowd noises on or off while watching soccer games. 

American sport has done augmented reality (AR) for some time. The AR cross-over point of sport and partnership is neatly done with the Nickelodeon slime cannons (bear with me) that went off during the recent Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints game. They might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it was a novel way to celebrate a touchdown.

“AR campaigns won’t succeed if you don’t invest the time to research the value. Augmented reality can do much more than just a one-off experience.”

The ongoing Covid situation has pushed up AR’s potential appeal. According to one industry expert: “The global pandemic has accelerated AR adoption, revealing its true potential in adding touchpoints to the sports audience experience.”

And that expert – Martin Herdina – should know, he’s the CEO of Wikitude, a company which has been pioneering AR since 2009. The Wikitude tech powered the official Olympic Games apps (both in Rio or London) – experiences which reached PokémonGo levels of spread and hype. 

And Martin only sees this adoption growing: “We are currently moving from a perception that AR is ‘nice to have’ to a must-have technology, with real added value. AR has proved its remarkable ability to boost customer engagement and retention, making it a powerful addition to the traditional media and marketing tools.”

Sport has seen some novel ways of using AR as Martin explained: “One of my favourites is the Dallas Cowboys’ ‘Pose With The Pros’ at AT&T Stadium. They superimposed the players’ images into the shots, so fans attending the game were able to take photos with their favourite athletes.

One of AR’s biggest uses in sport comes from DRS in cricket.

Fans’ in-person AR experiences evolve from single at-home usage to extensive off the field options. The Augmented print that Minnesota Vikings and other teams use takes the fans’ expectations to the next level, showing the athletes that inform them about the upcoming game.”

And what of the future? For those with the money and inclination, smartglasses will mean there is less lag between device and experience and will, says Martin, see experiences which: “Turn passive observation into active immersion. Esports and betting benefit from AR too, in increasing engagement times, retention and conversion.”

For those running teams, clubs and federations Martin warns against underestimating the technology and, perhaps as importantly, the needs for communications around it. “AR campaigns won’t succeed if you don’t invest the time to research the value. Augmented reality can do much more than just a one-off experience. You need to get everyone on board across different departments.

“Your app might be the user’s first encounter with augmented reality, so it’s crucial to keep it simple and guide people along the experience.”

“It happens… when the marketing team launches an AR campaign for retail but fails to brief and communicate the value to the retail department, who will be executing it. You also need to communicate the AR campaign to consumers. When brands don’t spread the word about the campaign running but still hope for a massive engagement resulting in a viral campaign. Your app might be the user’s first encounter with augmented reality, so it’s crucial to keep it simple and guide people along the experience.”

From established technology such as Hawk-eye in tennis and Formula One simulators to visualisation for training and in-game strategy, AR is only going to increase sporting achievement and spectators’ experience. 

Even so, no technology will ever recreate the live experience of watching your Non-League side get beaten 5-0 on a cold January evening, but it will be an increasing part of the sporting spectacle moving from side-show to centre stage.

My thanks to Martin and Maria Stenina of Wikitude. Wikitude is the power engine behind some of the most successful augmented reality solutions in the market. From those Olympic apps to Nissan’s virtualised car experience ad Caterpillar’s remote maintenance solution, their platform-agnostic technology is used in a wide variety of sectors and use cases. There are currently more than one billion app installations powered by Wikitude. For more details on their work go to www.wikitude.com.

The Digital Cafe’s End Of Year Awards – Find Out Who Starred In 2020

In the last orders for this year in the Digital Cafe, David Granger looks at how social and digital were shaped by the events of 2020 and how Sport responded.

In a year like no other, digital and social media in sport responded to some unprecedented situations with (mostly) great agility and some surprising social stars were born.

Social Star

Manchester United player Marcus Rashford’s use of social has to be the event of the year if not the decade. He managed, through a concerted, understated, but powerful campaign to highlight and force the British Government into not one, but two U-turns. Having been initially criticised by the UK’s health minister, Rashford and other professional soccer players managed to come through the pandemic with more compassion and ideas than the ruling party.

“Austin FC didn’t have a team, a ground or a fixture list when it started its social campaigns – but they were a masterclass in garnering support and galvanising a Texan community.”

Special mention also goes to Lewis Hamilton who also highlighted causes close to his own heart and (as well as equalling Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles and beating Covid-19) also managed to get Formula 1 to take a long, hard look at equality in the sport.

Newcomer of the Year

Not a person, more an account. Well, a club. Austin FC didn’t have a team, a ground or a fixture list when it started its social campaigns – but they were a masterclass in garnering support and galvanising a Texan community which is not the first which springs to mind when you mention US soccer.

They had some great online campaigns (their shirt launch should be studied by teams in every sport) which were backed up by experiential marketing and some savvy influencer content generated by ‘local’ actor Matthew McConaughey. And, once again. This was while their stadium and team were being built. They won’t kick a ball in anger until the 21/22 season. A great case study for digital and social any time, let alone during a pandemic.

Tweet of the Year

…had to be Southampton Football Club. They hit the political, sporting and social zeitgeist with their “Stop The Count” tweet when they were riding at the top of the Premier League. The club’s renaissance following their 9-0 defeat to Leicester City reached its zenith in November when they hit the top of the table, just as the President of the United States was demanding an end to ballot counting. This was top use of social in sport.

Trend/s of the Year

The necessity of remote spectators meant there were some great innovations by clubs. The Zoom-view or fan reactions was great for football, and the fans’ submissions shown on the big screen at F1 races was interesting, but it was Leeds United who nailed it with their spectator sofa commentary from families forced to support form home.

“As sports such as the NFL in the States have seen, gaining your next generation of fans means being where they are. And where are they? On social.”

The other trend of this year, in part driven by its massive audience and in part by athletes’ and teams’ innovation was that TikTok came of age. From Liverpool FC to Derry City FC, the chance to get great content in front of great audience numbers was an obvious next step.

Social Hype of the Year

It would be too easy to say TikTok or even esports, but influencer marketing (and arguably sports clubs moving into esports franchises is a form of influencer marketing) is what has been big this year. From the megastars of soccer (Ronaldo, Messi and Salah) to fitness coaches, cheerleaders and even the slightly leftfield Dude Perfect (ask your kids), the combination of sports personalities, fans and followers has gained real traction this year, especially as athletes had more time on their hands during lockdown to finesse their social and digital craft. And, as sports such as the NFL in the States have seen, gaining your next generation of fans means being where they are. And where are they? On social.

Faux Pas of the Year

The best (best?) examples of this appeared to be from sponsors and broadcasters rather than athletes (for the most part). While brands like Burger King got their digital marketing spot on, British Airways and Amazon were sadly less than clever with their support of their teams (in BA’s case) and programming territories (stand up Amazon).

Predictions for 2021…

The lessons learned from 2020 will hopefully continue in 2021 more meaningful digital engagement, better social content, great engagement and (for all our sakes) more spectators at games, events and races. Everyone loves a bit of digital and social interaction, but nothing beats actually watching live.