New world sports: digital transformation in sport


By Chris Bishop, Founder & CEO

December 21, 2016 | 9 min read

From the humble LED perimeter advertising boards to the seamlessly integrated goal line technology of the Premier League - digital has changed the nature of sport.

Digitial sports

Broadcast, publishing and Sports rights battle

Did you catch the game last weekend? Did you see Sanchez's hat trick goal against West Ham or Ibrahimovic’s kick out on Seamus Coleman?

If you did, it’s likely you didn’t watch it on your TV. Far more likely to have seen it on your mobile device or laptop. In recent years there’s been a dramatic decline in households subscribing to TV sports channels. ESPN has just suffered its worst loss of viewers in company history, dropping 600,000 subscribers in a single month. That’s on top of their “normal” monthly loss of 300,000 viewers.

Digital killed the TV star

So, if televised football is dying on its arse - is that the death knell for the beautiful game as mass entertainment phenomena? Not at all. It just means the modes and habits of consumption are shifting. People are still watching football and other sports, but they’re streaming it on desktops, laptops, mobiles and tablets, they’re multi-screening, catching highlights on social media, and augmenting their viewing through ‘on demand’ channels.

Meanwhile the old guard broadcasters are scratching their heads wondering where everyone’s gone and why their subscription model isn’t working anymore.

Here come the digital disruptors

And here come the digital disruptors to fill the vacuum they’ve left - to deliver sports content in the way consumers are demanding. Twitter are now streaming NFL’s "Thursday Night Football", and matches at Wimbledon. They’re repositioning from a social media to a content distribution channel precisely because of these opportunities. Elsewhere, Table Tennis England has agreed a broadcast rights deal with fast-growing youth publisher, TheLADbible Group and Facebook Stadium. Amazon and Netflix are biting at the heels too.

Sound familiar?

Does this story of a shift in technology and consumer behaviour catching an institution unawares sound familiar? It does to me. It’s the same dynamic I witnessed in the digital transformation of the high street. In my work with Amazon, House of Fraser, NET-A-PORTER and the likes, I’ve seen how adapting to and embracing disruptive technology can transform companies’ fortunes. I’ve also seen that ignoring it is fatal.

Retail Transformation: The Lessons for Sport

The lessons are the same for sport as they have been for retail. In retail, customers do not shop by “channel” (i.e store, web, mobile), they shop by brand. And they expect the brand to be available via every channel. It’s up the brand to join the dots of each consumer’s unique behaviour and personalise their content accordingly.

This is what’s next in sports broadcasting and rights; consumers what to view sports content whenever and wherever they like – and typically across multiple platforms at a time.

Virtual reality

Not just a fan engagement gimmick anymore, Virtual reality (VR) is increasingly a way supporters can experience sport itself.

And the opportunities are limitless

Walk into the dressing room, tap the famous Anfield tunnel sign, sit on the bench next to Special One or be part of the Klinsmann-esque goal celebration slide.

Get a virtual ticket to the sell-out match (especially in the Premier League where demand outweighs capacity). Watch your team beat Sheffield United 3-2 in the FA Cup Second Round, as if you were sat in your match seat. Be there even though you are in a different city or half way across the world.

Opportunities for Advertisers

Ecommerce giants like Google will look to sell you the 1st Team Kit and the very boots they are wearing during the match. You’ll be able to bet-in-play and interact more widely with the various advertisers should you wish.

Is this the future?

But the future is already here in some respects. Many sports clubs are pioneering in this space. Recent examples including Brighton Hove Albion’s VR experience, Man City’s use of AR with Snapchat Spectacles and Chelsea’s AR game - Chelsea Kicker – launched, coincidentally, in Asia!

Where will innovation happen?

Which industries will be pioneering AR and VR? You can certainly bet (sorry) it will be the gambling sector. And, not surprisingly the porn industry, who are always full of ideas. Let’s not forget the ‘adult industry’ is why VHS won against Betamax and why we have higher speed internet! Watch their output closely to see what they come up with next.


Imagine training for hours every day, being signed up by a Premier League club, wearing the kit, winning the World Cup. All without actually ever kicking a ball.

Esport is currently being talked about as an emerging trend, yet it already boasts some eye-watering numbers. Newzoo research suggests the global audience for Esport was 230m in 2015 and will double in the next few years. Revenues are forecasted at $893m in 2016 – via ticket sales, sponsorship and merchandising.

Esport and fantasy sport is likely to become the next fastest-growing sport globally (if it is not already).

Virtually Real

West Ham United and Manchester City are amongst the Premier League clubs to already have registered players, FIFA has an Interactive World Cup. Supporters watch via platforms such as Twitch (owned by Amazon – shocker!); teams typically compete across multiple platforms too.

For some within the sports industry the idea of embracing Esport feels pretty off brand. Sport is, after all, about the physical prowess of the athlete, not the sedentary habits of the professional gamer.

You need to get out more

I’m certainly of the generation were I enjoyed playing football as much outside my house as inside on FIFA. But elements of innovation in Esport are there, to encourage gamers to get outside. Basketball title NBA2K17 recently announced a partnership with Fitbit to reward physical excursion for in-game treats.

Stigma around this remains at the minute and Esport can easily be thrown in the “fan engagement” bucket. But given it’s soon to become a multi-billion industry it is going to become something the sports industry can hardly ignore.

Fan engagement

After my last opinion piece for The Drum - Why English football sucks at fan engagement – and Americans are in a different league – I certainly know that it’s a hot topic that provokes fierce debate.

So rather than repeat elements within that article I want to share a fantastic scheme I was made aware of last month. This is a truly pioneering digital fan engagement case study.

Fulham Football Club has a community foundation that decided to focus on getting over-35s fit. They wanted to make their lifestyles healthier whilst competing with rival fans. And they did all this via a digital platform in collaboration with the NHS, Fitbit, Men’s Health Forum and Parkrun.

Sport for all

Others clubs are seeing the rise of Walking Football and they should certainly invest in similar schemes to engage fans in a meaningful way. It will have a positive impact on lives, whilst getting fans and their family much more ingrained in the club. Just imagine what the NHS could do with a similar national partnership.

The Digital Nudge

It might be that the immediate future of fan engagement is staring at a glowing rectangle. It’s the 10th Anniversary of the iPhone this year and smart phones are here to stay. But efforts need to put in place to keep all ages active and digital can still play a part in that.

What should the sports industry do next?

Embrace change.

Not do as it always has.

Plan for a different match-day experience in 2017.

Understand that its consumers (yes supporters are consumers) are rapidly changing their behaviours both locally and globally. Evaluating these patterns of behaviour through the collection and measurement of data is paramount.

Turn the Dial

Sport needs to take inspiration from other sectors that have experienced model change through disruptive technology (i.e Uber, Netflix, Amazon). It should certainly cross-pollinate talent from other industries were digital has revolutionised the space.


What happens next depends on the consumer, the willingness to evolve and change will see who wins and loses, who thrives and who dies. Irrelevant of what will happen, sport will be the winner and consumers (supporters) will be given a more immersive, authentic experience – whether analogue or digital.

Chris Bishop is a marketing and digital advisor/consultant. Follow him on Twitter @cpbishop.


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