June 2020
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March 2020

The obstacle course ahead

The challenges that COVID-19 has brought to the fore, and the strategies to deal with them will vary based on the type of sports. For instance, while low- contact sports like tennis and gymnastics might see a quick resurgence, high contact, and team sports like wrestling, rugby, and football may take some time to get back in the arena. However, in either case, there will be some significant restrictions. For instance, training is currently a key challenge for sportspeople under lockdown. The social distancing norms and travel restrictions make it difficult for them to access world-class training facilities and in-person coaching. In sports like wrestling, where you need an opponent to train with, keeping in top form becomes doubly difficult.

When stadiums do open up, maintaining social distancing and adequate sanitization may remain a challenge in the years to come. And even then, it might be a while before audience confidence in large gatherings returns. After Covid-19, all professional sports have lost their attendees overnight. Sports events are often “super- spreader” events for infectious disease, making fans unwilling to assemble in large sports arenas in the near future. Indeed, a Champions League soccer match between Atalanta and Valencia on February 19, 2020, in Milan is being called “Game Zero” because it was played just two days before the first positive case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Italy. It is estimated that nearly 40,000 people in the stands exchanged the virus amongst them that day3.

Another challenge for the industry is revenue generation. Closed borders and cancelled events have dealt a big blow to sponsorship and broadcasting opportunities as well as match- day income. Players wearing brand logos in the stadiums bring in sponsorship dollars and also create merchandizing opportunities. The NFL earned over $8.1 billion in national revenue (consisting of TV deals along with merchandising and licensing deals) in 20194. In the absence of new games, these opportunities may be lost.

These challenges pose key questions for the industry: What is the business model for sports when the crowds do not (or are not allowed) show up? Will players be as motivated to excel when there are no roaring crowds to cheer them on? What are the ways to make players perform in a zero- audience environment?
The new reality is a wakeup call for the industry to rethink their business models at the most fundamental level.

Emerging business models

An alternative way of playing and watching sports is already emerging, where physical presence is not required for the audience. Teams in Taiwan and Germany5 are already filling their stands with fake spectators and cardboard cut-outs. Even as early as 2016, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tunisia6 used technology to strengthen the virtual relationship between fans and their football league. Using a mobile App, fans could connect to 40 speakers placed throughout the stadium and tap buttons to clap, cheer, and sing while watching the match live on TV. On the day of an important match, 90,000 fans cheered CS Hammam-Lif to the win. Broadcasters such as ESPN7 and individual leagues are using reruns, analysis, and documentaries to keep fans watching. NFL’s decision to make achieved games since 2009, available for streaming on its direct-to-consumer channel, Game Pass, has shot up daily sign-ups for the service by 500 times8. NBCUniversal9, too has made video streaming the centerpiece of its future operations.

Another approach is to move to virtual models where fans follow live broadcasts or engage with the game and players in an eSport format. eSports10 have grown tremendously (See Fig.10) in recent years, and the lockdown will only boost their adoption by leagues and fans alike.

In the emerging world of eSports, the Intel Extreme Masters11 (IEM) is a series of tournaments held in countries around the world11. These Electronic Sports League (ESL) sanctioned events, sponsored by Intel, including StarCraft II, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Quake Live, League of Legends and Hearthstone. The 2017 IEM finals in Katowice, Poland, drew 46 million viewers. In the same year, the NFL’s Super Bowl drew 111 million viewers. Some companies are already transitioning to eSports and seeing great results. eNASCAR12 race stream where amateurs played against professionals on Amazon’s Twitch brought in almost 70,000 unique viewers with no notice and no advertising.

As necessity makes online gaming the new normal, technology will also be a critical element in keeping fans engaged in the virtual stadiums. The need is to move from a high-touch to low-touch customer experience – a shift that makes digital experience a vital move on the board. We may see an increased use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to share insights on player performance and intelligent bots to have conversations with viewers in real-time. Technologies like Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) will give the viewers higher control on the gameplay and create more personalized and interactive experiences.

We could even see a complete robotization of sports with investments already pooling in for self-driving cars in auto racing and humanoid robot teams that could play in FIFA. CUE the basketball- playing robot can already shoot free throws with 100% accuracy topping the current NBA average of 77%3.

How sponsorship, broadcasting, and merchandizing opportunities evolve with these new models remains to be seen, however, one thing is clear – technology is set to play a major role in the sports industry.

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Technology partnerships: A key to winning

Now is the time for the industry to seriously look at how to integrate technology in everything from actual gameplays, to player training, and audience engagement and create winning technology partnerships.

AI and wearables can help players keep in shape even without access to training facilities. Online training platforms like Zwift14 and AI-powered wearable tech15 that can track and analyze microscopic movements to help maximize workout efficiency are already being used to great effect. Statistical analysis, video analytics, and predictive insights from past games can also help sportspersons prepare for matches and improve performance.

AI’s impact on game strategies has been significant, and coaches are increasingly using AI-based inputs to take decisions about line-ups, plays, game tactics, etc. and also to better prepare their players against the competition16. In the times of eSports, when access to players may not be in person, this data will become even more important in game decisions.

Another exciting development is automated sports data journalism. To meet the consumption needs of the audience sitting at home, AI and video automation can produce videos at scale through data feeds. This can help repurpose existing games with new analytics insights generating interest in re-telecasts even as new games stand canceled.

Technologies like AI, automation, cloud, 5G, AR/VR, etc. will help enrich fan experience in the virtual world. Using these technologies, it would be possible to enable personalized augmented experiences, instant replays, 360-degree views, time- lapse capabilities, and actual participation in the event17. AI could also enhance predictive capabilities, something that 18% of views say make sporting events more engaging18. For example, Infosys Stats+19 AI/ML re-orders statistics in a live match based on their individual influence on the outcome of the match delivering point-by-point, dynamic, and live updates.

Even as the impact of COVID-19 wanes, precautions will have to be taken as the audience returns to the stadiums. Technology will be critical to ensure that spaces are sanitized, crowds managed, and safety protocols adhered to. We may see an increased use of biometrics to allow a ticketless stadium entry, seating might be farther apart, and people may be guided to their seats via in-app navigation.

Data: The key to performance

Powering all these technology use cases, and AI platforms is data. And the data we collect today will make the next innings for sports better prepared for managing any crisis.

Sports have multiple sources of data, such as social media, scoreboards, wearables, ticket sales, merchandise sales, loyalty programs, etc. Data solutions can unify this player, sport, and customer data into a single version of the truth. Available to AI-powered analytical tools, this data can become a goldmine of information for the industry for strategic decision making. For example, it can help with micro-segmentation of the audience and performance-based ranking of players to create advertising and game day strategies and measure their effectiveness. Actionable insights can also help drive dynamic pricing, contracts and sponsorship fee structures, and stadium and television rights20.

Even as the future of sports rests on data availability, the focus on analytics has often been after data is collected.A sound data collection strategy is almost non-existent. The industry needs to quickly set up processes to collect data for all transactions, without regard to how it will be used in the short term.

The next innings for sports

Digital technologies will be the cornerstone of the next innings for sports, and we will see a shift away from stadiums. The good news is that we are not on ground zero. Sports has already made forays into models like eSports, and now the efforts need to focus on making these models mainstream. Technology partnerships are forming and strengthening right now, and investments will only grow bigger.

The fact is that disruption breeds innovation. COVID-19 has fast-tracked the digital transformation of sports, and those who capitalize on it will come out champions. Are you ready to win the game?

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References:

  1. https://www.bbc.com/sport/olympics/52670857
  2. https://www.insidesport.co/sports-business-to-lose-usd-61-6-billionin- 2020-reveals-two-circles-report/
  3. https://www.indiatoday.in/sports/football/story/championsleague- match-atlanta-vs-valencia-san-siro-bergamocoronavirus- 1659741-2020-03-25
  4. https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/packers-financials-show-thatnfl- made-billions-despite-national-anthem-controversy/
  5. https://www.copa90.com/en/creators/creator-collective-archive/ creators/diana-al-shammari/2016/7/90000-fans-heard-emptystadium
  6. https://www.wsj.com/articles/espn-unveils-plan-for-dealing-withsports- shutdown-11584454928?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=10
  7. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/sports-covid19- coronavirus-excersise-specators-media-coverage/
  8. https://www.nbcuniversal.com/
  9. https://www.businessinsider.com/esports-ecosystem-marketreport? r=US&IR=T
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intel_Extreme_Masters
  11. https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/22/21184192/sim-racingcoronavirus- f1-nascar-iracing-veloce-esports-max-verstappen-landonorris
  12. https://www.distrelec.de/current/en/robotics/how-robotics-and-aiare- shaping-the-world-of-sport/
  13. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2020/04/14/will-necessitybe- the-making-of-esports-during-covid-19/#a3d563846ba8
  14. https://emerj.com/ai-sector-overviews/artificial-intelligence-insports/
  15. https://www.cio.com/article/3400877/artificial-intelligence-in-sportsa- smarter-path-to-victory.html
  16. https://www.futurithmic.com/2020/03/03/5g-networks-will-changeesport- telco-playbook/
  17. https://cio.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/strategy-andmanagement/ ai-the-holy-grail-for-the-enhanced-sports-viewingexperience- according-to-millennials/70175381
  18. https://www.rolandgarros.com/en-us/article/stats-infosys-rolandgarros- 2019
  19. https://www.infosys.com/industries/media-entertainment/industryofferings/ sports.html
  20. https://www.rolandgarros.com/en-us/article/stats-infosys-rolandgarros-2019
  21. https://www.infosys.com/industries/media-entertainment/industryofferings/sports.html

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