What the sports sector can take from CES 2024
I kicked off 2024 with a trip to Las Vegas for CES – the Consumer Electronics Show – the largest consumer technology conference globally. And I can confirm, it’s crazy big. CES has for a long time been the setting of many major tech announcements and, taking place in January, is generally seen as setting the agenda for the forthcoming year. So, I went along to seek out the tech learnings that could be applied to the worlds of sports and entertainment.
These were my key takeaways.
1. AI will eat everything
AI was everywhere at CES this year, whether making hardware smarter (AI-enabled cat flaps, anyone?) or ramping up the capability of software.
Intel’s keynote, based around the Paris Olympic Games, highlighted some of the key applications we’ll soon see in sports, such as speeding up and improving the content creation process, tracking fan movements in stadium to improve the matchday experience, or capturing and analysing player movement data for scouting.
All of these applications require large datasets (or data capture opportunities) to train generative AI models – something that sports rightsholders all possess. I met with early stage startups who have identified sports rightsholders where a mutual exchange of value could take place – they get to train their models in return for giving the rightsholder first access to their technology. There’s often an investment angle here too, with rightsholders or their ownership groups taking equity in any AI company they help develop.
Elsewhere, NVIDIA showcased its latest developments in using AI to generate dynamic in-game interactions with non-player characters (NPCs). Expect to hear ever more detailed and spontaneous commentary in forthcoming sports games! A related point of discussion that cut through at CES was the announcement that the Screen Actors Guild will team up with AI voice tech company Replica Studios, to allow its members to lend their voices to generative AI tools. These replicated voices might then be licensed, for example, in video games or personalised sports highlights tailored to your favourite athletes and teams. As rightsholders and athletes wrestle over who owns what rights, AI replication of athlete likeness (voice or otherwise) is going to be an important and increasingly contentious topic in the coming months.
And how will you keep up with all the sports happening in 2024? Not on your phone. That’s the hope of the developers of the Rabbit R1 – the small AI-enabled gadget that claims to be a simpler and more intuitive way to interact with the digital world. It feels more likely this functionality will eventually be built into next gen smartphones, but it was an interesting signpost that, as consumers, our engagement with AI will likely be conversation-based.
2. 2024 could be a breakout year for AR/VR
Apple’s release date announcement for its Vision Pro device wasn’t made at CES, but that didn’t stop it being a hot topic of conversation at the event. Nonetheless, there were lots of potentially competing products on display in the conference hall. Key among them was XREAL’s Air 2 Ultra headset, which offers proper spatial computing with hand-tracking and identification of real-world objects, at a more affordable price than Apple’s $3,499 headset. At $699 it’s still a significant outlay for most consumers, meaning it'll likely find a home in the hands of developers and first-adopters for now.
It’s been a long (and ongoing) journey for AR and VR headsets to achieve anything like widespread adoption. Google Glass and Microsoft Hololens were demoing potential sports broadcast innovations back in 2015. But almost a decade on, 2024 should see an acceleration in development and market penetration.
There’s clearly an appetite for it, with Apple’s Vision Pro reportedly selling out via pre-order in a matter of hours. And we expect to see Apple revealing new sports content and gaming experiences at launch and throughout the year. My money’s on Messi sporting a Vision Pro headset before the year’s out.
Like the iPhone, we think the Vision Pro will result in a new category of app developers and startups who specialise in building experiences on the platform.
In terms of opportunities for rightsholders and broadcasters, sponsorship sales teams are already chasing partnerships with headset manufacturers, and we’ll soon see major leagues drop immersive experiences around tentpole events.
3. Sports venue walls are tumbling
Vegas is evolving into a major sporting and entertainment destination. In eyeshot of the new(ish) Allegiant Stadium, home to the NFL’s Raiders, and the T-Mobile Arena, housing the NHL’s Golden Knights, it was fitting that much of the sports tech conversation was aimed at enhancing the in-venue experience. Dwarfing everything (figuratively and literally) is the Sphere – the giant ball of capitalism lighting up the already neon Las Vegas skyline. Those attending events there have been impressed, and while London might not be getting an equivalent in the immediate future, we’re going to see more super high-resolution screens enhancing (or even powering) live music performances.
One of my favourite lines on this topic was, “sports venue walls are tumbling,” acknowledging how stadiums and their surroundings are becoming 7-day-a-week entertainment destinations. Vegas hotel-casinos were called out as providing the blueprint for this – spaces that engage guests the second they walk through the door, and continuing to offer personalised promotions throughout their time “on campus”.
There was lots of “smart city” tech on show in Vegas, ranging from AI-enabled crowd management to smart parking, and these technologies have the potential to increase the time that fans spend onsite – a clear priority for new and existing sports venues looking to squeeze more value from existing real estate assets. In addition to better monetisation, using tech to manage the arrival, flow and departure of fans will help combat the major pain point of queues and traffic on matchdays too – thereby improving the fan experience.
4. Sports can be a consumer data goldmine
With the end of cookies top-of-mind for many marketers, there were lots of companies talking about how to collect data and the challenge of pulling out key insights from an endless stream of information. Broadly, the technologies we saw fell into four categories:
- Data capture
- Data analysis
Sports properties are at varying stages of maturity and success with each of these, and tend to lag behind other sectors such as travel, fashion and entertainment. In many cases, getting the right mix of sector agnostic, and sports specific, technologies to crunch the numbers will be in important.
But in the post-cookie world, where personalisation will rely on zero and first-party data capture, we see sports having an opportunity to lead the way. Sports fandom is a uniquely powerful means of voluntary consumer data capture, as fans are far happier sharing information about themselves with their teams than other brands. The Vegas Golden Knights’ Stephanie Rodgers pointed to the fact they recently managed to get over twelve thousand fans to complete a forty-one question survey. Not bad for a new franchise! With that in mind, we see tech companies being attracted to sector, banking on the chance to create compelling case studies.
In the same panel as Rodgers, Google’s Kate Johnson made the point that traditional logo exposure-based sponsorship deals are dead, and that integrated marketing partnerships are the new standard. This means that brands will need a detailed view of the audiences of sports properties to deploy marketing dollars, and rightsholders (and their agencies) will need the relevant skills and tools to provide this.
Fanbases of a particular club shouldn’t be seen as a homogenous group either. Sponsors are going to look for technologies that enable their ads and sponsored content to be targeted to specific audience segments within the wider fanbase. Rightsholders stand to benefit from doing the same for their ticketing and retail channels, enabling them to direct fans to appropriate merchandise or hospitality packages.
5. Self-driving cars will add an hour of media consumption per day for drivers
Self-driving cars got a lot of coverage at CES. There was even an autonomous vehicle challenge at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And following the event, I got to experience a self-driving car for the first time in San Francisco. While the empty driver seat and lack of windscreen wipers in the rain was fairly unnerving, it presented a novel opportunity for media consumption. Rather than sticking in some wireless headphones (or asking the driver to switch radio stations), control of the media experience – complete with an in-car screen – meant there was a new opportunity for music, a podcast or watching videos. In other words, driverless cars offer a new environment for people to consume sports content.
With American drivers averaging an hour of drive time per day, that's a decent chunk the day freed up to catch up on highlights – or tweak your fantasy team. It’s going to be a similar story on this side of the pond too, given that 70% of us in the UK drive to work. I also look forward to catching the 4:30pm Premier League Sunday game on the M25, while a self-driving car pilots me home after a weekend away.
The public transport dwellers among us won’t be left out, either. Continued 5G roll-out (including underground) is enabling streamed content on-the-go, accelerating this trend. As one CES panellist put it: “live no longer means live sports, it means delivering content to fans wherever they are 24 hours a day.”
That sounds like a lot of sport. And we're here for it!