Updated: Sep 3, 2020

The Sports Loft podcast brings industry leaders together with senior leaders from the Sports Loft member companies to discuss the topical issues in sport, entertainment, tech and investment.

In the latest episode of the Sports Loft podcast, we posed the question of what future fan engagement will look like to Satisfi Labs’ CEO Donny White and KNVB’s Captain of knowledge development & innovation, Giel Kirkels, two people who have a good idea of what the future holds.

Donny is CEO at Satisfi, a conversational search tool for venues that uses AI and allows people to get the information they need at arenas, often a closed shop for maps and search. With investment from MLB and Google, Satisfi have an impressive roster of US sports clients across all the major sports. Giel leads innovation for KNVB and collaborates with UEFA for the Reimagine Football initiative.

What do they think will happen? Donny highlighted the need to segment different fan personas, at stadium, at home or in other venues. “You’ll be going to the stadium knowing everything will be personalised to you” from ticket buying to attendance, like a VIP visit to a casino.

Giel’s greatest focus is getting fans back into stadiums. Once he has, “how can we make it fun?” KNVB’s research found that atmosphere was the most enjoyable part of attending matches for fans. It’s important for athletes too. Players said they can’t get focused without the crowd noise during the warm up. This poses the challenge of how you get at-home fans into the stadium to create atmosphere? Donny thinks fans will want to get their voices heard, wherever they’re watching from. “Players need (atmosphere) as badly as fans do”.

What problems are they trying to address for the next stage of development? Giel is focused on the making the stadium experience as rich as possible, such as providing live broadcast feeds so fans can watch other angles and replays, conscious that many will spend more time on their phones if they can’t sit next to friends.

Looking further ahead, Donny expects to see “new physical experiences created” connecting the need for togetherness with technological advances. This could see viewing experiences closer to home for those who can’t make the stadium but still want a shared experience with other fans.

Giel wants to “keep the stadium experience accessible” and hopes for VR and AR technologies to hit the mainstream, bringing fans closer to the stadium even if they can’t be there, whether because of a pandemic or because they live far away. He said that “covid is screaming for innovation” and will act as a digital accelerator. Even if fan engagement is currently harder because of the pandemic, it could usher in a whole new set of opportunities.

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Updated: Jul 24, 2020

In a recent digital strategy report Mckinsey argued: The COVID-19 crisis seemingly provides a sudden glimpse into a future world, one in which digital has become central to every interaction, forcing both organizations and individuals further up the adoption curve almost overnight. A world in which digital channels become the primary or sole customer-engagement model and automated processes become a primary driver of productivity. A world in which agile ways of working are a prerequisite to meeting seemingly daily changes to customer behavior.

If a silver lining can be found, it might be in the falling barriers to improvisation and experimentation that have emerged among customers, markets, regulators, and organizations. In this unique moment, companies can learn and progress more quickly than ever before.”

As an industry acutely affected by the pandemic this change has been keenly felt in sport and media. The effects of the pandemic have exposed which organisations had structures in place to cope with rapid change and which were developing the digital strategies that would enable them to flourish in a “world in which digital channels become the primary customer-engagement model”. For tech companies serving the sector, it has also shown which companies have viable business models and are delivering long term value for both the industry and their investors.

You can also see the pandemic’s effects through the massive polarisation in the fortunes of different organisations, even within the sports and media sector.  For example, Peloton’s share price has doubled in six months, while Disney+ subscribers reached 54 million in less than six months from launch. This is in stark contrast to the huge pressures  facing teams , governing bodies such as the FA and RFU and content owners such as DAZN.

At Sports Loft we have seen first hand how this has been playing out. From the urgent need to  find a solution to the lack of crowd noise in stadiums for broadcasters, to a greater willingness for clubs, leagues, broadcasters and agencies to experiment and try new things. For example, Sports Loft member Spalk have seen sales cycles shorten from “months to days” during the pandemic as remote production has been adopted at scale, a clear example of “falling barriers to improvisation and experimentation”. This has prompted lots of discussion with industry execs and investors that we talk to everyday about which types of companies will benefit from the COVID-induced digital acceleration. We see four types of companies benefiting the most: 

1) Companies who have a product where adoption would have happened anyway but it has been accelerated by COVID. At Sports Loft, this includes companies such as Spalk, who have benefitted from the rapid adoption of remote production technologies. It also includes Zone7, as players are now at heightened risk of injury with the return to play and Greenfly where content creation and distribution can be done irrespective of the athlete’s or influencer’s location.

2) Companies where a new use case has become more mainstream as a result of Covid, and is here to stay. For the parents amongst you, Google Classroom is a good example. Did it exist before COVID? Yes. Did my kids’ school use it? No. Can I imagine the school not utilising it once school is (hopefully) back in September? Absolutely not. At Sports Loft, Formalytics fits into this category. More broadly, the “watch parties” being offered by the broadcasters will move from “niche” to mainstream as people have used it and will stick with it going forward.

3) Companies which were concentrated on the “physical place” such as stadiums, but have been able to find new ways of utilising their technology to serve a broader set of customers. These companies are normally a bit more mature, with management teams that can make such a leap and a track record of success with their customers so that they can bring their client base along with them. At Sports Loft, this would include Satisfi who were very focused on the in-venue experience, now with their new products aimed at serving a broader fanbase; Fevo who have been able to broaden their “social cart” from ticketing to wider e-commerce. 

4) Companies who are enabling their customers to build direct relations with their fanbases. In a world where “digital channels become the primary customer-engagement model” (to quote Mckinsey again) then companies who can help their customers develop these D2C channels will only benefit. At Sports Loft this includes companies such as Pumpjack who help teams increase the value of their first party fan data and Covatic who identify the best “windows of opportunity” for fans to consume content.

These are four areas where we believe companies can benefit from COVID driven digital acceleration. However, there are also areas where we are less bullish. In the past few months, we have been very aware of the emergence of a number of companies solving very specific problems caused by COVID, for example, a lack of crowd noise from stadiums. These solutions echo the many companies we have seen in the last few years who have a very good idea that can be used in a sponsorship activation, but often there is a natural shelf life, with brands, teams and fans naturally moving on to something else. Whilst the value of “focus” is undeniable, it’s hard to build a viable business in the long-term if it is focused solely on a very specific issue that will only be “top of mind” for a finite period. 

The companies to watch are those capitalising on the direction of travel established by COVID whilst building long-term value for the industry and for their investors.

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Updated: Jul 16, 2020

His question neatly encapsulated the relationship between rights-holder and sponsor but it could just as easily be applied to the broadcaster – rights-holder relationship as well. In effect, whose job was it to be pro-active? I’ve seen this dynamic a lot in the past when consulting rights-holder side. I remember once being told by a rights-holder that it “wasn’t our job” to be taking activation ideas to a brand client, that was up to the brand and their agency, we had to sell them the rights and then help them activate what they wanted to do as long as it was within the contract. In this particular instance, the rights-holder was entirely passive and if the brand hadn’t been pro-active, a multi-year contract could have come and gone with little achieved. Maybe the rights-holder got lazy because the brand was doing all the legwork, but that’s not the case every time. It’s certainly not been uncommon to hear rights-holders complain that their brand partners “never activate”.

If we accept that the majority of brand budgets are going to be squeezed in the coming years, then this “passive” approach surely cannot continue. Rights-holders are going to have to pro-actively take ideas to their brand partners in order to show that they are delivering value and the rights-holders who will continue to attract the brand budgets will be the ones who are innovating and can show a genuine return for their partners. Agencies won’t be able to rest on retainers – they are going to have to work hard for those retainers, pro-actively taking new and creative ideas to their clients (and this will often mean new technologies). Brands are going to need to think creatively, often doing more with less – and new technologies will be one of the first places they turn. Content distributors (whether broadcasters or new platforms) are going to be in an arms race to attract and retain fans with the best experiences. Investors and ownership groups will want to see the properties they have bought maximising their existing commercial opportunities and creating new ones, invariably that will mean utilising new technologies.

So where does that leave the tech companies who want to sell their innovative technologies into this rights-holder / sponsor, or rights-holder / broadcaster dynamic? At Sports Loft we are seeing that the most pro-active sports organisations, agencies, brands and content distributors are already looking for the technologies that will help them be successful in whatever a post-COVID world looks like. These are the organisations that we think are most likely to be successful in the coming years but that doesn’t mean that they are sat there waiting with cheque books open. The tech companies are really going to need to understand the different objectives and challenges that, for example, the brand will have as opposed to an agency, rights-holder or content distributor. They are going to need to know which are the sports organisations that have the mindset to be open to innovation and can support potentially disruptive ideas. And it might mean that the fastest way to get their technology adopted is to identify on a case-by-case basis whether it is the brand, agency, broadcaster or rights-holder who is going to be most pro-active.

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