Digital Disruption In Sport

Crowd DNA’s Gabriel Noble explores how innovations in digital, social media and gaming are changing the sports we love and creating new opportunities for brands…

Sport is one of the last spaces to be truly disrupted by digital. As such, its stakeholders can take inspiration and lessons from past industries who have got it right, and wrong.

That was one of the key takeaways shared at the Digital Sport seminar at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre. And based on the evidence shared by Chris Paget and Jonny Madill, two Sheridans sports lawyers who led the seminar, disruption is, as usual, being led by fans.

Sports fan behaviour is rapidly shifting. Fans of football, basketball and NFL no longer devote their undivided attention to live matches. In fact, 87% of fans second screen when watching live sport. The decreasing attention spans of audiences has led to cord-cutting: Premier League viewing figures have gone down 22% per game since the 2010–11 season, and viewing figures at the halfway stage for this season compared to the halfway stage last season have decreased by 11%. However, it’s not only decreasing attention spans that are causing this shift. Sports fans can now stream matches on various devices, and can catch the highlights as they happen via clips shared on social media.

Broadcasters are responding to this accordingly. Sky, for example, are investing more of their marketing budget on Sky Go, their streaming service, while BT Sport and Sky both upload goals from matches on Twitter immediately after they happen. Credit has to go to these broadcasters, who are adapting and engaging with their audience on their own terms, and in doing so creating new relationships with them.

However, this shift to social media doesn’t come without competition. Just this week, it was reported that Facebook were in talks with Major League Baseball about streaming one game per week from their upcoming season. This is a deal with a solid strategy from both sides in place. Facebook are reportedly keen to invest more in streaming live sports as they see it as an effective way of attracting sports fans to use the platform. Meanwhile, the MLB get the attention of a young audience, one that the league has been struggling to attract, as soccer and eSports continue to grow among this audience in the US.

Social media’s ability to attract a younger viewership was illustrated in the deal that the NFL did with Twitter. Though the stream of the first NFL game to be viewed totalled 2.1 million compared with the 14 million who viewed it on TV, 70% of people who watched it on Twitter were under the age of 35. This is extremely attractive to leagues like the NFL, who are keen to engage with, and win over, a young audience.

NFL’s Twitter partnership

But where does all this leave the brands who sponsor sports teams, leagues and events? One place to look for inspiration is Budweiser and how they sponsored Euro 2016 highlight clips that ITV shared on Twitter. Throughout the tournament, 150 real-time tweets of Euro 2016 action were shared by ITV, with Budweiser advertising shown at the beginning and end of each clip. This exemplifies how sponsors should be adapting their strategy for the digital age.

Finally, how does this disruption effect the sports themselves? In January, the NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA are looking to speed up the end of their games, in order to attract and retain fans who “have increasingly short attention spans.” He added, “it’s something that I know all of sports are looking at right now, and that is the format of the game and the length of time it takes to play the game.”

However, this is not a strategy that would be welcome in all sports. As Niall Coen on the Digital Sport podcast said, “mess with the formula of Premier League football, you do so at your peril. There’d be quite a backlash.”

A strategy that could be adapted by sports teams and leagues without affecting their integrity is acquiring eSports teams. eSports is a phenomenon that has taken the world by storm. In 2014, the League Of Legends World Finals attracted an audience of 45,000 in a stadium that once hosted the Fifa World Cup final in Seoul. The overall viewership of the Finals was 27 million. In 2016, the overall viewership of the Finals was 43 million.

League Of Legends World Championship Final

Traditional sports teams have been getting in on the act by snapping up eSports teams. The Philidelphia 76ers, for example, have bought a League Of Legends eSports team. And football teams have been following suit, whether it’s Manchester City signing their own eSports player, or the French football league partnering with EA to create “e-Ligue 1”.

The investment in League Of Legends eSports teams is particularly interesting, as it suggests that traditional sports teams and franchises may become content platforms and brands outside of their own sport in order to adapt to the digital age.

One thing’s for sure, the digital model of eSports is working, and all stakeholders in the sports industry should take note.

The question that Chris and Jonny left on was, can sports keep pace with technological developments and consumer trends? We will have to wait and see, but it’s certainly a fascinating time to be involved.