The Digital Disruption and Sport

Recently I was asked to speak at the Business of Sport Summit BOSSummit in Sydney where I participated on a panel of speakers on the topic of:

Changed Game: Predicting and Preparing for the Future in Sport
As sport changes both on and off the field, innovation has become a key priority for all industry stakeholders. What can we predict about the future direction of sport in the region? How can sports executives adapt the dynamic energy of sport to build new audiences and create new business models? Which sports can we expect to experience growth in the next decade, and which will experience decline?

When I first received this topic at hand, I found it rather thought-provoking. All sports have evolved over the last 100-150 years and to dabble at the thought of how sport can look like in the future is confronting.

To me the first topic that sprung to mind was the digital disruption we are currently experiencing and how sports and entertainment has or has not adapted. To add to this is the in-home experience fans are now able to experience vs the in-stadium experience which goes hand in hand with the extraordinary television rights deals many sports are now achieving.

The in-home experience of consuming sport is getting better and better and changing in lightning speed with home theatre systems that provide HDTV and surround sound, smartphone streaming and video-on-demand, the fans of today have plenty to choose from so we know it can be hard to get them out of their lounge rooms and into the stadium / arena for a live experience.  With the rapid pace that technology is developing, this challenge undoubtedly presents an increasing issue.

The TVs are getting bigger, high-definition viewing with sound bars and all the specialty commentary and stats one could ever desire creating an amazing experience, all in the proximity of one’s own fridge with cheap food and beer.

In contrast, what was the in-stadium experience like? Everyone talks about fan engagement, the buzz words in sports and entertainment at the moment, but what does all this mean and who is doing it well?

I was confronted with the challenge of the in-stadium experience only in the recent two years in my role as Director of Sales, Marketing and Communications of a world-class stadium, Etihad Stadium where I was the project lead for the connected stadium strategy to help improve the fan experience at the stadium and also provide an environment where we provide a customised experience for the variety of fans and clubs that made the stadium home (5 x AFL Clubs, 1 x A-League Club and 1 x Big Bash League Club).

The challenge was, how can we present the stadium like a true home ground for the specific tenant club fans at their home games and how could we provide the 1.7 million fans that visit the stadium each year the ultimate live experience.  The other challenge was, how do we find the millions required to transform the live experience in-stadium.

We have all experienced packed stadiums and arenas where you are unable to make a phone call or browse the internet, Facebook or other social sites due to congestion. In today’s world of technology which we rely upon heavily, this is a frustrating experience.

When we embarked on this project, we looked widely within Australia of examples of best practice. Our search didn’t take long at all as it became quickly apparent that despite it being 2013, many stadiums, venues and sports across Australia had not been active in this space of innovation and connected stadiums which in turn could create better fan engagement environments.

What we did know was that the next generation of fans and their behaviours had changed in the last decade. This picture highlights what goes on at a live event in this day and age. How were venues responding to the increasing demand for connectivity and a better live fan experience?

At the end of 2013, it was timely that Telstra commissioned several venues to their boardroom in Sydney in an attempt to collaborate on the idea of connected stadiums in a round table discussion. In the room, I found a number of executives such as myself who were challenged at the thought? What does all this mean? Credit to Telstra and Kathy-Ann McManus for inspiring this very open and fluid meeting and the discussion that followed demonstrated to me the lack of expertise and knowledge in the room. The only venue at that time that had embarked on installing a high-definition Wi Fi network was ANZ Stadium.

I recall Daryl Kerry, the CEO of ANZ Stadium telling the room that they had embarked on the journey and whilst they weren’t fully understanding what this all meant, they were looking forward to learning about it as they went through the process. I looked at Daryl at the time as a leader and innovator. He was prepared to plunge into the world of a connected stadium and invest a considerable amount of financial resources but understood that as much as you prepare for a new and brave world, “the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action”.

This term is very fond to me as I first heard it in a meeting with the CEO of IBM at the time, Andrew Stevens, when they were responding to our request for proposal for the installation of the high density Wi Fi and iPTV network at Etihad Stadium several months later. I recall vividly in a meeting him saying,

“Gentlemen, you can write all the papers you want on a connected stadium project, but at the end of the day, the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action”. He proceeded to say “the longer you take to come to grips with the new world of innovation and technology and all that comes with it, it becomes a compounding effect and the further you fall behind. The stadium experience in Australia is quickly becoming archaic and we need to move quickly in the world of connectivity. Your customers demand it now and will increasingly demand it in the future”.  Andrew Stevens, IBM Australia – April 2014

This round table discussion at Telstra prompted us at Etihad Stadium to embark on a fact-finding mission globally. What were stadiums doing overseas when it came to the new connected world and how did they create a better environment for their tenants and rights holders. This lead our appointed consultant for the project, Paul Yeomans and myself to the USA where we visited stadiums and arenas in Kansas City, Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

The Americans were well advanced in this space and we took a lot of inspiration, particularly from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home to the Brooklyn Nets. We attended the second NBA play-off between Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat who we had incidentally also seen play in the first playoff in Miami.

Another stadium which presented me with a great experience was in Kansas City of all places at Sporting Park the home of MLS franchise Sporting KC.  A bespoke stadium accommodating 21,000 people was purpose-built to provide a first class live football experience. Sporting KC  This is what the CEO of Sporting KC, Robert Heinemann, had to say about the live experience they created at Sporting Park.

“Building on our technology strategy which centers around enhancing the fan experience, Sporting Kansas City chose Experience based on their innovation and sole focus on the fan. Experience’s mobile technology, integrated into our Uphoria app, will be fast for fans to use as well as very simple and intuitive. Sporting KC fans will be further empowered to personalize their game day experience, whether it’s having the ability to purchase an on-field experience or simply enabling a seat move to get closer to the action, our fans will be able to use technology to create a memory and make the most of their visit to Sporting Park.”

The high density Wi Fi we experienced at both the Barclays Centre and Sporting Park was more powerful than the normal residential Wi Fi, the LED displays lit up the stadium, the thousands of iPTV screens around the arena were influencing everything you wanted to do at the stadium from merchandise offers to food and beverage bundle deals to where you could purchase tickets to the next game or concert being held at the venue intertwined with strong Brooklyn Nets and Sporting KC branding.  You could even upgrade your seat once you were seated and desired to sit somewhere else.

Having logged into the Wi Fi at Barclays Center, I was receiving beacon-triggered messages with merchandise and food & beverage offers nearby and helping me get directions there. One condition of logging into the Wi Fi network was that I download the Barclays Center iPhone app and volunteer my information, email and mobile phone number.  Such a powerful data play.

The app provided instant relays, live action, statistics, sponsor offers, ticketing promotions and so much more. Combine this with the non-stop audio and visual experience, I walked away from that evening inspired and comparing it to the stadium experience back home where by in large you couldn’t get connectivity and on many occasions couldn’t even make a phone call due to the congestion. At the time, LED signage and high density stadium Wi Fi was still by in large immature in Australia.

The Barclays Center exterior upon arrival
Inside the Barclays Center
Sporting KC at Sporting Park Kansas City

In a short space of time, and with some help from many people along the way, we were able to develop a connected stadium strategy for Etihad Stadium which would bring to the stadium a high density Wi Fi infrastructure, 1,600 iPTV screens and LED in-bowl signage for the perimeter fence and level 1 parapet. The project was developed with a financial model which was fully funded by partnering on the advertising rights with a media agency for five (5) years.

The key to our success in developing and implementing our connected stadium strategy was the desire to innovate and be market leaders.

Etihad Stadium announced in mid 2014 its decision to partner with Telstra, Cisco (infrastructure), PMY (Project Manager) and OAMM (Media Agency partner) to create a connected environment that provides fan engagement and a match-day experience that is unrivalled in Australia.  Within a space of 12 months we were able to develop our strategy with certainty and decisiveness.

Fans first experienced the full implementation in March 2015 following the venue’s multi-million dollar investment which at the time made the stadium the most connected and technologically advanced in Australia.

From Round 1 of the 2015 AFL Premiership season, fans at Etihad Stadium were presented with  exciting content displayed on the more than 1,600 IPTV High Definition screens and an enhanced connected live experience through the 704 high density WiFi access points that had been installed to provide attendees with fast and free internet connections when they are at the ground.

Fans could once again feel at home with the venue coming to life with its club colours through the 1,600 iPTV screens scattered around the stadium, LED ribbon displays in-bowl and access to all the content they would desire through the high density WiFi system.

Never again would a fan attend an event at Etihad Stadium and not be able to make a phone call due to congestion or struggle with connectivity to browse the internet and use their apps at will.  The media as they saw it at the time includes this article from The Age.

Confronting new technology and taking on the challenge was one of the most rewarding projects I have had to ever work on.  During the time, it was helpful to collaborate and seek the advice of a number of people and companies.  However, evolving the live experience at stadiums and arenas remains a challenge and rights holders and venues need to continue to grapple with the rapid pace of technology and a new generation of fans and how they want to consume sports and entertainment.

I recall spending countless hours with Manny Spanoudakis from Cisco, who has now become a very close friend since meeting as a result of this project, along with other industry experts sharing their experiences of the implementation of connected stadium strategies around the world.  This project wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration and inspiration.

In the end, actions spoke louder than words as we embarked on this exciting journey of discovery and dared to look into the future.

Sports broadcasting is also going to become an interesting sphere over the coming months and years. Major sports derive valuable revenue from sports broadcasting and with the various forms with which fans now consume sport, we will see a mix of rights via the traditional free to air television networks, subscription television and now the fast emerging over the top avenues provided by providers such as Netflix and Fetch.  English Premier League Australian rights for the 2016/17 season will shift from subscription television (Foxtel) to over the top (Optus / Netflix).

Furthermore, the broadcasters are beginning to demand more from the rights holders in terms of how the sport is presented and made more entertaining for the home viewer.  The Big Bash League on Network Ten is a prime example of this.  All of this leads to increased competition to the live experience and it all points towards rights holders and venues having to work even harder to deliver a better live experience than the in-home or from your own device experience.

Peter Filopoulos