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The Digital Transformation Of Sport Has Accelerated

T
he absence of live sports and fans in venues due to the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the sports business, according to InCrowd head of partnerships for Australia and New Zealand, Seb Lear.

In the words of Lear, InCrowd is a “fan experience platform and services agency aimed at helping rightsholders strengthen their direct relationships with fans through real-time data and their owned & operated digital platforms”.

InCrowd works with various sports rightsholders around the world including the ECB, Formula 1, UEFA, 14 Premier League & Championship Football Clubs, Premiership Rugby, PRO14 Rugby, RFL and 126 sports venues across markets such as Australia, the UK and the US.

Speaking to Ministry of Sport, Lear said the digital transformation was already happening, but COVID-19 has put digital at the forefront of the minds of sports rights holders, more than ever.

“I think this transformation was inevitable and we were already seeing significant progress, but the pandemic has driven many rightsholders to bring their digital plans forward,” Lear told Ministry of Sport.

“It was Microsoft who said recently that 2 years’ worth of digital transformation had happened in 2 months, and I don’t think sport is any different.

“COVID-19 has forced a huge amount of change, whether that be competition formats, financing structures or digital evolution, and whilst digital is a bit of a buzzword, this crisis really has made many realise the need to focus on this area.

“The lack of a live product has caused sports to ask ‘do we really have a direct relationship with our fans? Do we have ways to communicate with them directly? How can we engage them, and therefore create value when traditional revenue streams are uncertain?’

“COVID-19 has shown you need to have infrastructures in place to be able to monetise your audience, even if you can’t get them into the stands,” he said.

When asked what InCrowd has been doing during the pandemic to help rightsholders, Lear said COVID-19 has helped rightsholders understand the importance of connecting with and engaging their audiences digitally.

An example Lear gave was Suncorp Super Netball, who utilised InCrowd’s DXP to engage netball fans through voting campaigns on their ‘Rebound Hub’, driving 56,000 interactions in April alone.

“Being able to use content through their own platforms, personalise messaging using first party data, and utilise engagement tools has been our real focus and will likely become more of a focus for us to increase our capability and help rightsholders create new digital sponsorship rights and direct marketing channels, to really move them into a world where they can navigate a changing commercial landscape and protect against evolving consumption habits,” Lear said.

“There are some rightsholders that are already on this journey and for them it’s about continuing along that road, which is great, and they will probably be the ones that will do best out of this.

“Take mobile ticketing for example, with sports typically only knowing one in four fans who enter their venues, several of our clients in football, cricket and rugby union invested in this area a few years ago to drive data capture and fan experience objectives.

“They are now in a situation where they have the infrastructure in place to handle a return to stadiums safely by knowing exactly who and at what time fans are entering their stadium, which will be essential to getting fans back into stadiums.

“There are then some sports that have suddenly realised this is a really important area for them to invest more into and strategically putting greater focus into their transformation…and you find others who are just in a really difficult position.

“You have to be realistic that some sports really are struggling financially, and whilst they would love to be investing in digital, in the current situation they are simply unable to.

“However, there are a lot of quick wins that can be achieved without having to invest significant amounts of capital, which is something our services team have been working on recently with clients in the UK and in collaboration with sports marketing agency Sports & Entertainment (SEL) here in Australia, specifically in the sponsorship space,” he said.

Discussing the state of digital activation in sports sponsorships, Lear said there is still a disconnect between what brands are expecting and what rights are on offer.

“Digital in the past, has largely been a bit of a bolt-on to the traditional rights, and we’ve seen that with some feedback from brands and rightsholders,” he said.

“Brands often have to do the heavy lifting in terms of activating sponsorships digitally, utilising their traditional rights, and delivering them through third party channels.

“Using Guinness as an example, they are doing some amazing stuff in terms of using platforms like Deliveroo or Uber Eats to drive sales of Guinness by utilising the traditional assets such as tickets as a hook to try and drive sales.

“The challenge for rightsholders is that the delivery and success of these campaigns bypasses them, with that ad spend and value attributed to third party platforms such as Facebook and Google.

“Digital needs to be intertwined far more into the sponsorship rights and we are excited by the potential in this area.

“In future, if a rightsholder was able to say to a brand, ‘if you run campaigns through our platforms and our technology, use our first party fan data to run campaigns across display and social and align those with IP and other valuable assets throughout a season, then these are the kind of results you can expect vs your KPI’s’, then that is a significant and exciting step.

“More so now than ever, brand spend is going to be scrutinised with different sectors struggling from the economic impacts of the pandemic, so sponsors need to be shown ways that sport can support their business objectives, all the way down to the bottom of the funnel.

“Rightsholders can then ensure that brands have far less reasons to just sponsor the core assets, and then spend a huge amount of money activating it on third party platforms; it’s almost a case of rightsholders acting like a media agency, which is a significant mindset shift,” Lear said.