Sports is getting a digital makeover, but let's not forget the physical experience

'Everything has to start with data – about the players, the game and the fan.' - Emma Chan

The Drum, in conversation with IBM iX associate partner Emma Chan, looks at the key marketing and trends in sports and how technology is turning sports into a data-driven, digitally enhanced sector, and how its biggest impact may be coming off the field.

The Drum: What are some of the biggest trends in sports marketing for 2019 that brands should be aware of in that space?

Emma Chan: Traditional sponsorship models are changing and becoming less transactional and more of a partnership with shared values and objectives, which involves creating more meaningful and personalised campaigns. Barclays Bank, Budweiser, Lucozade and Boots, as sponsors of England’s Lionesses, ran various campaigns around themes of female role models and inspiring people to play football.

A particular favourite of mine was Budweiser, which stated its objective to help drive real change in women’s football, break down social barriers and perceptions, and showcase the women’s game by building the profile and visibility of the players. The video, drawing inspiration from the words of Queen Elizabeth I and showcasing strong contemporary women, was a powerful message that has a wider impact and relevance beyond the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup.

The other trend we see is technology being used more to create really personalised experiences, and sponsored content that reaches out to fans in a very tailored way, such as behind-the-scenes footage and facts that are personalised to the fan. If you look at the Fifa World Cup 2018 Highlight Machine created by IBM for Fox Sports, this AI-powered platform lets fans create and share their own customised football highlight videos. Using this interactive platform, fans can browse and filter Fifa’s archive of past and current matches by year, team, player, matches and type of gameplay, such as penalty kicks and goals.

To keep post-match conversations going, fans can title, save and share their creations via email, text, Facebook and Twitter. This kind of personalised interaction creates a conversation with fans and drives more people to digital platforms, creating more opportunities to engage and therefore opportunities to generate revenue.

TD: Wimbledon is cited as an example of innovating, using AI and IBM Cloud to make experiences more insightful. What can the sports industry learn from this partnership?

EC: Wimbledon and IBM have a 30-year history of innovation and partnership, and in that time we have collaborated to gather data – a lot of data – and from that draw insights and create engaging experiences for fans and players; 4.5m tennis data points are generated each year, and since 1990 IBM has collected, catalogued and analysed more than 66m data points. But the most important part isn’t collecting the data, it’s unlocking the insights within it. This provides the press and commentary teams with insight into every match and every player on every court; it provides the fans with real-time updates and analysis, and we also provide the players with personalised match analysis 20 minutes after they finish their game.

For me the success of this partnership lies in a clear technology strategy aligned to business objectives and adopting an approach that is design-led and data-driven. Wimbledon wants the 70 million digital visitors each year to have the same unique experience as those lucky enough to attend in person. So, the design of the digital channels creates an immersive experience and the data provides insights that are unique.

For example, we now use IBM Watson to analyse live footage of player gestures and crowd reactions to instantly rank match highlights. Watson even listens for the ball striking the racket to make sure highlights are clipped as precisely as possible. These clips are available to the content team two minutes after a match finishes, and we are also training Watson to remove bias.

TD: Just look at the changing women’s game consumption habits, the pace of technological shifts and new behaviour, appetite and interest among Generation Z. The modern fans are changing sports forever. Does marketing to a sports fan require a very different mindset from marketing to a typical consumer? And how best to keep them engaged?

EC: Fans want to engage with their team anywhere, any time and on any device; they want insights, highlights and content that is relevant, timely and personalised. This is aligned to their expectations as consumers. As the fan base is growing to achieve an increasingly global reach, clubs need to broaden their appeal beyond traditional boundaries. It is no longer enough to push generic content and expect fans to stay engaged.

To build a successful engagement strategy, sports organisations need to consider:

Know your audience. It sounds obvious and many sports organisations assume they know their fans, but it is crucial to keep up with changing demographics and preferences. Rather than thinking of fans as one homogenous entity, it is important to segment them in order to respond to varied needs and tailor content accordingly. Data-driven insight (collected through interactions) enables organisations to create engaging, personalised content to attract new fans and create more advocates among existing fans.

Deliver the right assets at the right time. Once a conversation is started with fans, clubs can learn about their fans’ preferences and start to focus on creating quality content that will engage and delight. By being more relevant, unique and insightful, clubs can keep existing fans engaged and attract new fans.

Maximise the impact of digital interactions. By creating an exceptional user experience combined with bold visual design, the impact of digital interactions is immediately improved. Back that up with data-driven insights (player stats, match analysis, behind-the-scenes insights) and fans will stay longer and keep coming back for more.

Remember the physical experience. For the fans who are lucky enough to attend an event in person, it is important to make the physical experience an engaging and exciting one. Understand the fans attending and offer personalised interactions before, during and after the game.

TD: Which technologies are you most excited about that you think will change the face of sports as we know it?

EC: There are so many exciting opportunities to improve performance on and off the pitch using technology. Everything has to start with data – about the players, the game and the fan. Once you have that foundation the potential is vast. For me, AI in sport has so much potential to improve how we understand fans, analyse performance and create content, as well as uncovering insights and trends from data.

My favourite story this year is when IBM took Watson to Leatherhead Football Club. Playing in the seventh tier of English football, it may not seem like your typical starting point for using AI, but the club’s management began working with IBM Watson to provide pre- and post-match analysis, as well as opposition scouting, to coaches and players alike.

Watson Discovery explores match reports and social feeds to gather information and analyse the opposition to provide a comprehensive view of their recent games, such as the most influential players, tactics for attacking and the balance between the left and right wings. Then, after a game, the Leatherhead coaches and players could ask questions in natural language to review the relevant video clips alongside insightful analysis. With Watson’s assistance, Leatherhead ascended 12 spots up the league, rounding off an incredibly successful 2018/19 Season.

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