Pandemic is making the digital match-experience mainstream

December 14, 2020

All major leagues that have made a comeback have started replicating the exhilarating roar of the stadiums to fill the void.

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The soft, metallic clinking of a soccer ball ricocheting off the back of a goal, possibly was the most resonant sound in the world of sports in recent times. It was the first live goal that the Bundesliga, the highest level of soccer competition in Germany, had seen in more than two months. From that to LED stumps and bails flashing on Indian TV screens, we know sports has resumed with the Indian Premier League (IPL).

The IPL has broken all previous viewership records this year demonstrating how important live sports is to fans, and consequently how much pent-up demand was created because of the shutdown of most sports events for a number of months this year. The fan base and excitement that has been built over the years for IPL and other sports leagues have made sports the top form of live entertainment today. With no in-stadium audience, sports leagues are trying out new ways to engage with fans, thereby significantly transforming the match-experience for sports fans.

The transition from in-stadia to virtual experience

In the pre-pandemic era, a lot of emphasis was placed on in-stadia experience by leagues and brands alike, both for fans in the stadium and to communicate the excitement to viewers at home. The real-time fan reactions captured in slow-mo made some of the most iconic fan moments and even overnight internet stars, celebrity spectators added to the glamour of the spectacle and on-ground engagement with sports stars and spectators, ensured the best experience for fans in the stadium. Even for brands, the stadium was a platform to drive brand recall through experiential marketing. But there were limited offers and activities for the broader set of fans that were watching the matches on TV and other mediums.

To put things in perspective, the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad is poised to become one of the world’s largest cricket stadiums which can accommodate over 1 lakh cricket fans, and the viewership of IPL’s opening match alone was at 20 crores. If leagues just cater to the in-stadia audience experience, it is barely a fraction of the target audience reached. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic has enforced the transition to explore more ways to enhance the fan experience for viewers at home.

Innovations in sports broadcasting

News anchors are going on-air from their homes. GECs telecasting reruns of old TV shows in the absence of fresh content. Sports broadcasters and leagues are creating content through video conferencing. But the most significant gap to bridge for sports broadcasters was to deliver to the fans the thrilling experience of a sporting event at home despite empty stadiums. The pandemic brought technological innovations in broadcasting, as well as the acceleration of development of a more holistic fan experience.

All major leagues that have made a comeback have started replicating the exhilarating roar of the stadiums to fill the void, which is accurately timed with match-points and high moments from the match. For instance, the Bundesliga audio engineers created audio samples of how fans would react to specific plays, and their audio engineers in the OB van would mix the authentic sound happening at the stadium, together with the pre-set audio and get this feed into broadcasting.

Leagues are also partnering with technology companies to offer value-add on channels as well as digital platforms that are helping to create superior match experiences through interactive live-streaming and scores, live match blogs with real-time statistics and so on.

Building digital fan communities

Due to exceptional circumstances in this IPL, the growing prominence of digital fan engagement can be observed through fan-focused initiatives. There are digital fan walls in the stadium, including one in the commentary box, for every game. Select fans from around the world are a part of the match on four large virtual fan walls which include pre-recorded videos of cheerleaders on branded walls of sponsors. Even IPL teams like Mumbai Indians launched initiatives like ‘MI Live’, ‘Paltan Play’ to unify MI fans. Rajasthan Royals has also started a community-based programme called ‘Super Royals’ under which 22 fans from across the world have been trained to engage with fans by devising activities across social media.

Another big and new contributor in the digital fan engagement space is online fantasy sports which are proving to be one of the biggest drivers of digital sports adoption in India. There are over 100 million Indian sports fans that participate in online fantasy sports contests and compete with fellow fans based on their knowledge and skill in the sport. Options to create groups and personalised contests help to further increase engagement. As a skill-based platform, users tend to research sports data online before creating their teams. This has led to the growth of digital sports content platforms offering research, data, predictions and analytics.

Future of digital sports fan engagement

The restriction required due to the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for the sports ecosystem to reimagine the fan experience by adopting digital-first means to build personalisation catering to every fan. There aren’t enough digital platforms in India catering to the rapidly growing base of sports fans and building user-first experiences. To build fandom and strong loyalties, sports engagement and easy access to interactive content are essential.

While India is still in the growth phase of becoming a multi-sports nation, there is a latent opportunity among the existing sports fan base in India. Sports fan engagement is an untapped segment with high potential to grow.

Yannick Colaco is a guest contributor. Views expressed are personal.