Digital Trends for the Sports Industry in 2016

It’s an exciting year to work in sport; calendar years that end in an even number always are.

And this one is certainly no exception, with the Euros and Rio 2016 as notable highlights. It’s an equally great time to work in digital – technological advances and the gradual ‘digitisation’ of the general public is revolutionising the media landscape, and by definition, the sport industry.

With that in mind, here are some trends which I believe will continue to push the boundaries of digital as rights holders, rights owners, brands, sponsors and advertisers fight to get your attention, as the consumer, in 2016.

Rise of OTT

The over-the-top, or OTT, revolution gained momentum in 2015 and will continue to advance in the year ahead. The market is fragmented, and will diverge for a while, so any strategy for content owners will need to consider the wider business requirements as well as the appetite for reach. At some point in the future, the platforms will start to converge, and a couple will start to lead the pack but I think we are some way off. I suspect Apple TV and Amazon will be two of the prevalent names when the dust has settled. The term ‘cord cutting’ will find itself mentioned more and more in this context too.

The disruptive influence of OTTs on the broadcasting industry is significant, as is the direct route to the consumer – the ability for content owners to sell without the need for a third parties is appealing. The knock on effect of this to sports industry is yet to be fully grasped – especially as OTTs are still maturing. One could surmise that rights holders can now start to reflect on this and thus a real shift in the media rights industry could be on the horizon.

Social Media will evolve

Fans now spend more time talking sports on social media channels than watching sport on TV or attending an event. As a ritual, sport is enjoyed in numbers – so enabling fans to connect and discuss in real time removes geographical or financial barriers. The instantaneous nature of social platforms, and the feeling of being involved with your friends and other fans is a real USP for social media. The result: an engaged audience for advertisers, sponsors and brands.

The emergence of Snapchat and Instagram as real contenders to Facebook and Twitter as engagement tools with a massive reach is certainly noteworthy. Add to the mix ‘star power’ and you have a powerful communication and marketing mechanism – fans will connect on a personal level to their sport hero and that hero’s endorsement will have more significance.

As a result, we’ll see more emphasis on valuing the engagement ‘factor’ in 2016 while content owners and brands will need to carefully consider their approach based on their goals. Reach is certainly one positive, but actually engaging and converting those into assets is another challenge.

The blossoming love affair of these platforms with content production and aggregation – be it user, ambassador, or partner generated – is another aspect to this fascinating evolution and will continue to mature in the next 12 months.

Emergence of eSport

Still on the periphery but edging towards the mainstream, eSports has been gaining popularity slowly but surely. This will grow in 2016 and I suspect start to break into new ground towards the end of the year.

Amazon owned Twitch, which is a platform for watching eGaming online, now boasts 100+ million monthly unique visitors, 1.7 million broadcasters, and average time of 1 hour and 46 minutes spent viewing content. Some incredible figures. One assumes this is a big part of what led to ESPN recently announcing a commitment to a new online platform dedicated to coverage of eSport from around the world.

The appeal of this highly engaged audience is something that broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers will start to seriously take note of in 2016.

Mobile domination will continue

Mobile overtook desktop in terms of Internet usage in 2014 according to comScore. This doesn’t come as a surprise. In fact, as far back as 2008, analysts were predicting this. Clearly this is enabled by advances in technology and connectivity. The news from Google last year regarding their App Indexing plans only compounds this astounding growth.

Content is now expected to be available anytime, anywhere, and on any device – this trend will not subside. The time shift for Rio means that consumption in European countries will be inclined towards the evenings and into the early hours for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Mobile devices and tablets will form a crucial strategy for any broadcaster with the rights to the Games – mobiles for the delivery of bite-sized summaries for the morning and tablets for watching late at night in bed. Access offline will be an important aspect in this.

Mobile advertising is shifting and growing rapidly too. In fact, desktop advertising was nearly caught by mobile advertising in 2015 – a push in 2016 will surely put mobile ahead of desktop. Key areas of focus will be video and location-based advertising. A highly engaged mobile phone user (who will likely be wearing earphones) will probably take more notice of a short pre-roll than adverts on the TV. And, the ability to target advertising based on said users’ location will provide a very valuable tool for the industry.

AR vs. VR

Not specifically ‘digital’ but a slightly wider point – augmented reality and virtual reality are not new topics but have been generating unpreceded buzz as of late.

Both have in fact been used in some shape or form by the media landscape in the past few years including by deltatre: AR graphics on live broadcast for the BBC and Univision, and virtual studios for Fox International Channels and SkyPerfectTV.

In terms of next steps – the ‘interactivity’ for presenters live on air is the next point of interest. For example, being able to move augmented graphics by gesture control or object tracking to enable augmented objects to be held or passed. And in terms of VR, I’m excited to see how Oculus Rift and HoloLens evolve – both for the fans at home and the fans at the event.

2016 has been cited as the year of ‘early adopters’ – and with an extensive landscape for growth and innovation – the AR/VR conundrum, including the immersive vs. ambient debate, is set to continue.

Content matters

Obvious, and crucial. Without content, a digital property is just lines of code.

Content should help drive digital strategy and user behaviour should in turn advance content production. A clear and defined strategy in line with the goals of the business is a necessity for content owners. At the heart of this: identification of channels and specifically targeted content – including a recognition of user / ambassador generated content.

My guess is that as the content delivery platforms diverge further in 2016, content owners will continually contemplate the best strategy for engaging their fans. As a result, we’ll probably see more experimentation and agility in content distribution – clear measurable goals and timely analytics will be important to enable this progress. We may also see more radical visions – potentially those of a ‘website-free’ future. Controversial? Yes. Reality? We’ll see.

The future of search

One final point to note – I heard someone during a presentation say: the future of search is the end of search as we know it.

I think 2016 will be the year this starts to move into the mainstream. We, as data hungry consumers, expect (and have) information at the tip of our fingers. But, content discovery algorithms enabled by big data and predictive analysis has a real future, especially as the platforms diverge.

Google Now is a considerable step in this direction – anticipating your needs for the day-to-day. But imagine if your phone knew what you were about to search based on your location. Or the day of the week. Or the last bank transaction via your mobile banking app.

Search is evolving and you can bet whatever happens with the likes of Google and Microsoft will have a knock on effect on the wider digital industry.