As COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the world last year, the sports industry was severely impacted. As all sporting action came to a crashing halt, fans were left without their weekly fix of sports while franchises were faced with declining revenues and lost opportunities. In the US alone, the NBA is estimated to have lost close to $300 million in terms of ticketing revenue and when considering revenue from all sources, the league missed its targets by as much as $1.5 billion as per AP News. It was a similar story with most other leagues too with the NFL estimated to bear a $1.3 billion loss due to 4 of its teams playing without fans while the MLB’s losses were estimated at almost $5 billion.
However, the show must go on and as things gradually started getting better, sports leagues in the US slowly began considering a return amidst the new normal. Relatively newer entities like the UFC bounced back much sooner by shifting their events to a private island in Abu Dhabi and marching on without in-person attendance. Others like the WWE, who operate within the unique realm of “sports entertainment”, realized that fans were an integral part of their offering and leveraged VR and AR to virtually bring in thousands of fans to participate in live broadcasts.
Eventually, as the Big 4 US sports leagues returned to action, the focus was on leveraging digital technologies to usher in unlimited attendees while creating a raucous stadium-like experience. This was done with the help of digital-first platforms that were further bolstered by live video editing, engaging graphics, and multiple audio feeds mixed in. Elsewhere, global franchises like Formula 1 & MotoGP looked to have their racing drivers engaged in virtual SIM-based races to meld motorsports with e-sports to great effect.
This changing landscape provides sports franchises a great opportunity to drive greater fan engagement by leveraging digital tech to create immersive and memorable fan experiences. Let’s take a closer look at how this can be done –
- Real Emotional Connect through Virtual Platforms – Fans’ interaction with their favorite players have traditionally been restricted to autograph signings or backstage meet and greets. However, digital platforms now make it possible to create personal, informal experiences and provide a look into the person behind the player. NHL’s Syracuse Crunch last year had their star goalie play the latest installment of EA Sports’ NHL 20 video game. The team also went a step further by broadcasting the virtual play online while allowing a few lucky fans to participate by having their avatars be part of the lineup of players. Other forms of engagement could include special virtual hangouts, players, and fans competing in fun contests or special access to virtual post-game celebrations.
- Immersive Experiences leveraging AR-VR – One of the most alluring aspects of sports is being able to share an experience with several others who are wired the same way. Until crowds return to full capacity at stadiums, sports franchises are looking to utilize Virtual Reality applications to allow users to create “watch parties” where groups of fans can partake in a game together. This experience can be further enhanced by mixing in live social media feeds, bringing in secondary screens, adding polls or quizzes to really ramp up the interactive elements. The WNBA enriched their app with a “Tap to Cheer” feature that provided newer ways for fans to engage with or compete against each other during live games – this gamification resulting from a second screen experience drove an 85% YoY increase in weekly downloads of the WNBA’s mobile app.
- Localized and Personalized Narratives – Many large sports franchises having fan followings that rival the population of major countries. However, these fans are spread across the globe and hail from different cultural backgrounds. For instance, Barcelona FC – one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world is as cherished in Kerala, India as it is along the coast of northeastern Spain. The key lies in creating highly unique and localized content that conveys a team’s stories in a way that resonates with fans across the globe. The next element is to personalize experiences by developing different fan personas and providing content around their favorite players or driving up interactivity through fantasy sports games.
- NFTs for new age Sports Collectibles and Memorabilia – Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs have become all the rage over the past few months and while there might still be some skeptics, there are plenty of sports entities that have taken the leap. In April of 2021, the Golden State Warriors became the first sports team to officially launch their own NFTs that would include digital championship rings amongst other items. Similarly, the WWE also recently released their first NFTs that would feature memorable moments from the career of one of their most memorable characters – The Undertaker. Although it’s a new trend, the possibilities are immense to create a new way for fans to collect and trade sports memorabilia.
As the world continues to recover from the pandemic and the proverbial chips fall into place, the sports industry would be keen to welcome back fans and make up for lost opportunities and time. It is evident that the “game” has changed – pun intended and the emergence of digital platforms will result in sports franchises looking to create several new touchpoints to engage with fans.
The opportunities are truly limitless and those sports leagues that embrace digital in a major way, constantly innovate and place fans at the heart of creating memorable experiences are the ones that will thrive.