Let's take a moment to remember sporting glory of 2019

We ask what will be the real sporting legacy of 2019?

The summer of 2019 will be remembered for its sporting highlights and lowlights – with thrillers from Wimbledon and the Cricket, Rugby and Women’s Football World Cups among the treats on offer. We look at three key trends that mattered.

These highlights have demonstrated how advances in technology, bandwidth and equality have elevated sport’s worth and value – and there’s more to come. But what will be the real sporting legacy of 2019?

Let’s remember that when Roger Federer first turned pro some 21 years ago, Google was not yet a company, the BlackBerry smartphone was still to launch and AOL was busy inundating wannabe internet users with CD-ROM mailers.

When he contested the Wimbledon tennis finals this year, (almost) as unbeatable and evergreen as ever, the world of sport as entertainment had been transformed. Technology is changing the way we consume content and the business of sport itself, from coaching to scouting to the commercialisation of big-ticket events.

Society, too, is changing, and in a post-#MeToo era women’s sport is gaining traction around the world with more streams and broadcast leading to mass appeal. But what will be the real sporting legacy of 2019? We look at three key trends that mattered and will drive further innovation.

Women’s sports – equality at last?

The summer of 2019 put paid to the myth that there wasn’t a global broadcasting audience for women’s sports. From record audiences and new audiences to new media deals, women’s sports are in the spotlight now more than ever.

Most notable was the Fifa Women’s World Cup, held in France, which saw in the UK alone almost 12 million people tune in to watch the USA beat England in the semi-finals. It marked the UK’s most-viewed TV programme of 2019 to date, with around half of the viewers having never before watched a Women’s World Cup game before the 2019 tournament.

The BBC, which aired the tournament, claims to have increased the proportion of women’s sport on its channels by around a third over the past five years: it now accounts for around 30% of the BBC’s overall yearly sports coverage. The Women’s FA Cup Final, Netball World Cup and Women’s Ashes have all found airtime this year.

A survey conducted by Commonwealth Bank in Australia, long-time sponsor of the national women’s cricket team, earlier this year revealed that more than half of all Australians follow women’s sport. The authors pointed to an increase in coverage on TV and more positive and widespread coverage in the media as reasons behind the surge. There was a 48% increase in interest in women’s sport from 2018, with 53% of Australians now watching broadcasts or attending live women’s sporting events.

That increased coverage of women’s sport across the board has brought about major investment from sponsors including Barclays, Visa, Coca-Cola and Boots, while the UK’s Telegraph has launched a women’s sports section.

Sam Seddon, head of IBM’s sports partnership with Wimbledon and the RFU, says: “With the huge focus on women’s sport this summer, it has been fantastic to see how much interest there’s been from fans.”

A note of caution: in a survey published in March, consumer insights company Netfluential suggested that a lack of coverage, quality of commentary and poor advertising of fixtures were still holding back potential viewers.

Better broadcast experience

Japanese broadcaster NHK produced the Rugby World Cup in September this year in 8K – a first for the sport. The broadcaster has already conducted a number of successful tests and demonstrations of the technology. However, the 8K coverage is only available in Japan, with a 4K feed available for global broadcasters. There was four times as much coverage expected compared with previous tournaments and AR was in use, too. It was used to display team line-ups, player comparisons, stats and tables.

Before the tournament, World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “We’re excited that new standards will be set in the broadcast and social media presentation of the Rugby World Cup, as fans will experience the action from more angles and feel even closer to the world’s top players and the stories that will mark an historic and very special event.”

The tournament proved a useful harbinger of what viewers can expect next year when two of the world’s biggest sporting platforms take place: the Tokyo Olympic Games and football’s Uefa Euro 2020 tournament.

This year there’s been more personalised content, augmented and virtual realities and almost real-time highlights, such as those generated by IBM’s Watson at this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament.

By next year, the superfast 5G mobile internet and compatible phones will be in more hands. Research firm Gartner estimates that overall provider investment in 5G networks will double from 6% in 2019 to 12% in 2020. Japanese carriers have already taken note and plan to launch ‘pre-commercial’ 5G services a year early in order to coincide with the Rugby World Cup.

However, sometimes less is more. This year The Championships launched an official Wimbledon ‘lite’ app, designed for fans in places with poorer bandwidth and older smartphones – such as India, its biggest social media base.

It’s an important market for any sports franchise. Research from Ampere Analysis reveals that Indian respondents showed the highest relative interest in sport of any of the 20 markets surveyed. More than half (53%) enjoyed watching sport against an average of 41% across all markets. Internet usage has exceeded half a billion people (566 million) for the first time, driven by rapid internet growth in rural areas and energised by mobile with increased availability of bandwidth and cheap data plans.

The rise of OTT and streaming is also allowing advertisers to address their audiences contextually and deliver personalised or more targeted messages to avid fans, however they watch.

AI: the great leveller?

Machine learning is transforming the way that teams train and strategise, bringing economies and a wealth of information and insight not seen before – and it’s not just available to sporting giants.

Take IBM’s partnership with Leatherhead Football Club. The club, which plays in the seventh tier of English football, began working with IBM to provide pre- and post-match analysis, as well as opposition scouting, to both coaches and players. Traditionally, such in-depth analysis would have been painstakingly manual and exorbitantly expensive.

IBM Watson Discovery explores match reports and social feeds to gather information in order to provide a comprehensive view of their opponents’ recent games.

Other uses of the technology are finding their way on-screen and into the locker room, from real-time statistics and quant insight to powering machine-created highlights packages, as debuted at this year’s Wimbledon.

It’s even reinventing the sports we know and love. In March this year design agency AKQA introduced Speedgate, an event ‘invented’ by computers. It created the game by feeding data on 400 existing sports to a neural network, which created basic sports concepts and rules. Many of the games were unworkable and unrealistic, but Speedgate might yet make the cut – the agency is reported to be talking to the Oregon Sports Authority about its future.

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