Our Thinking

From AI to data enrichment: five sports trends to watch in 2024

We predict the trends that will shape the sports, media and entertainment industry in the coming 12 months.
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Andy Selby
December 8, 2023
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Once a year at Sports Loft, we dust off the crystal ball and look ahead in order to predict some of the emerging sports, media and technology trends that will shape the industry. You can scrutinise our 2023 effort here, and also listen to Charlie and I pick this apart on the latest Sports Loft podcast.

It’s an exercise that helps us identify which sectors to focus more closely on, the kinds of companies to seek out, and how we can help our existing members to better position themselves to rightsholders and their needs. This year’s list incorporates hot takes on tech investment, community building, data enrichment and more.

Let’s dive in. 

Rightsholders will launch new community propositions

The best sports teams are leveraging the fact that, at their core, they are community-driven businesses that provide a place for people with shared identities and passions to come together. This will lead teams and leagues to move beyond the transaction-based relationships with fans that have dominated the last decade or so, and shift towards nurturing fan communities.

Historically, fan-to-fan and fan-to-club communication centred around online fan forums and, in recent years, social media. However, we see 2024 as the year that teams and leagues start to run these communities themselves. Sometimes they will be built on third party platforms such as Discord (and yes, you can still capture the data) and in other cases teams will choose to build them on their own platforms. In most cases, we see the former as the optimal route. Ultimately, software development and maintenance aren’t typically part of clubs’ core competencies, and apps like Discord, Telegram and Whatsapp are already hangouts for millions of fans around the world.

The best community platforms will provide a compelling new element to digital club membership, enable international fans to get together and meet up to watch games, and provide new routes for both ticket and merchandise sales. They can also give teams a unique insight into fan conversations. By tracking the discussions between fans (and attributing insights to fan profiles) rightsholders can use these tools to gather valuable data.

Sports will leverage its unique position to capture consumer data

This year will herald the death of third party cookies. In Q1 2024, Google will begin to phase out third party cookies for the first 1% of its three billion(!) Chrome users and will ramp this up throughout the year. Apple and Mozilla have already done this in Safari and Firefox by default. This is certainly going to put even more emphasis on high quality, first party data.

Therefore, a potential partner's ability to collect significant volumes of high quality and detailed data is going to be highly desirable for brand marketers (and partners wanting to acquire their own data), and we believe that sports properties will prove to be uniquely able to do so.

The affinity that supporters have for their teams and their willingness to share their details and opinions, is perhaps only matched by music artists. Supporters are keen to enter competitions, share their thoughts on favourite players and vote on quizzes and polls – all providing significant amounts of data.  

In 2024, we expect to see the first deals come to light where brands prioritise sports teams due to their ability to capture data. We also expect teams and leagues to be looking at the depth of their data, not just the quantity of it. For example, rather than saying, “we’ve gained 30,000 new email addresses in the last three months,” they’ll emphasise having 20 data points per customer profile instead of five basic identifiers.

Personality will rival performance in the race for attention

Boxing has developed a new generation of fans in recent years. However, many of those eyeballs aren’t glued on the top boxers, but instead on YouTubers scrapping it out in unlicensed bouts. October’s KSI vs Tommy Fury fight resulted in a global pay per view audience of over 1.3m, and a take home of about £5m (a larger prize pot than for this year’s Rugby World Cup winners). Similarly, YouTube group Sidemen (which includes KSI) brought in 67,000 attendees for their September charity football match, exceeding the average attendance of all but one Premier League team

In response, in 2024 we expect to see teams building out the personalities and brands of their athletes. That’ll require having clear brand plans for their players, and the ability to produce and distribute high quality athlete-focused content. Providing a safe space – such as team-owned podcasts and pre-match shows – in which personalities can come to the fore will be key to that, as well as actually finding the sporting talent that can drive engagement and interest.

We also expect to see an increase in YouTube, Twitch and TikTok personalities scouted and signed to become the face of rightsholder content – whether on short form social videos or watch-alongs on streaming channels. CBS’s Champions League coverage has perhaps demonstrated the power of compelling presenter and pundit personalities best and – alongside the occasional celebrity guest – we should expect to see clubs develop more of their own media talent in the coming year.

Rightsholders will increasingly take equity stakes in tech

While investment in tech companies alongside sports properties is fairly common at the ownership group level in the US (see our podcasts with Wise Ventures and Ryan Sports Ventures), in 2024 we expect to see an increasing number of rightsholder-level deals. Clubs and leagues are already customers of fast-growth tech companies. But we anticipate them wanting to invest in the best of those businesses in order to benefit from the growth they can help drive as a high profile client.

This is exciting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if rightsholders create a new flow of funding into early stage startups, we’re going to see more companies have the firepower to build strong industry-specific propositions. Secondly, while the European sports landscape might be less collaborative than in the US (where innovation is often driven at a league level), rightsholders taking equity stakes in tech suppliers will likely result in more cooperation in the industry, given the incentive for those rightsholders to see their investments grow.

Rightsholders will make an interesting class of investors. Strategically relevant (both for network and PR purposes), a closer relationship with a tech provider might bring them more influence on the product direction – great for the rightsholder, but whether that’s in the best interests of the startup will vary. On the rightsholder side, investing in a specific tech supplier might make it difficult to switch to a superior technology that emerges. Therefore, making the correct long-term commitments will require careful alignment of a rightsholder’s technical needs with its financial ambitions, and the relevant expertise to do so.

AI will get more specific to sport 

Much like 2023’s predictions, it would be bold to not give AI a mention, such is the excitement and genuine potential around the technology. So far, the AI hype machine has focused on the likes of OpenAI, and we expect them to be among the handful of foundational providers that come to dominate the sector, along with Google, Meta and Amazon, as well as potentially Nvidia and Anthropic.

However, in 2024 we expect to see the adoption of a number of sector-specific AI offerings, and sport will be no exception. With their own data models built on top of services such as ChatGPT, and integrations with industry-relevant applications (such as ticketing or real-time data platforms), these companies will make AI more usable – and provide reassurance to organisations looking to benefit from AI but naturally cautious about the risks.

Industry-specific AI tools will offer a level of accuracy and context-awareness that generic software can’t provide. They’ll consider factors surrounding a request, such as timing, location and who is asking for the information. In sport, someone might ask “who's our next game against?,” and the response will take into account when the match is, previous results against the opposition, the location of the person asking, and therefore their likelihood to purchase a ticket or watch the game on TV. In terms of accuracy, sports-focused tools will go beyond addressing enquiries with readily available information. Instead, they’ll ensure that their responses remain current and up-to-date, in sports taking into consideration factors like player roster changes and injuries.

For rightsholders, we’re not expecting to see existing tech stacks ripped out and replaced by a host of shiny new AI-driven upstarts. Instead, we see AI-focused technologies sitting alongside existing tech suppliers that also integrate AI into their products. This “Product + AI” approach will enable companies to supercharge their tools and allow their customers to get greater value from them. This might result in crunching fan data at a scale not previously possible, making entire content archives searchable down to a specific moment, or even writing Sports Loft’s 2025 predictions for us.

It’s going to be an exciting year.

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