A Blueprint for Sports to Thrive, Even Without Fans in Attendance

Massachusetts Institute of Technology outlines ideas for sports to grow in a COVID-19 world

Professional sports are slowly getting back on their respective playing surfaces. NASCAR is running races without fans. The U.S. Open will go on without fans. The NBA and NHL plan to do the same.

There's no doubt sports fans will take a while to feel comfortable in a packed house again. However … could it be possible that sports has an opportunity to come back even stronger after the coronavirus pandemic?

“They certainly can and, for me, the first innovation opportunity is in the digital fan experience,” says Ben Shields, Senior Lecturer at the M.I.T. Sloane School of Management.

Shields is one of the hosts of a new three-part series called Return to Sports: How the Industry Can Survive and Adapt in a Post-Pandemic World. The first episode is already up with segments two and three available in the next two weeks (to watch, click here.) The folks at M.I.T. believe new avenues are opening up for sports to grow in popularity.

“All we have right now as fans is a digital experience,” says Shields. “So, when media companies and leagues and teams are showing their live events the opportunity is to create, through technology, an experience of maybe being at the venue.”

Shields is among the many analysts that believe we’re still a long way from seeing full stadiums or arenas, so sports franchises must innovate to ensure they don’t lose touch with their fan bases.

“We’ve got to create the same feeling of being at a sporting event through digital technology.”

Ideas include interactive apps and games centered around fantasy sports, gambling and perhaps more than anything else, giving fans more access to their favorite teams and the biggest names in sports.

“I think when we look back at the pandemic one of the defining moments from a sports standpoint is when (New England Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick was sitting at his kitchen table during the NFL Draft and his dog was right there,” says Shields. “I think that access between fans and stars will continue in the new broadcast presentation of sports.”

Another idea that could get traction is for traditional or “mainstream” sports to take a page from the wildly successful world of eSports and create brand new online communities.

“A technology like Twitch, a platform best known for eSports,” says Shields. “Fans of eSports and gamers can converse with one another while they watch the live game action. They can co-stream an eSports event and provide their own play-by-play commentary. They can cut their own highlights. That kind of participatory fandom, where it’s not just me sitting back on my couch and watching the game, I think, is another innovation opportunity we’re going to see in sports post-pandemic.”

There are ways to monetize such an online community, for example through subscriptions or online sales. That’s going to be a major concern for sports who are losing billions of dollars by not having people in the stands buying tickets and beer.

“In lieu of that attendance at a game there’s going to have to be an investment in digital business,” says Shields. “The nice thing about that is digital is not going away any time soon. When you look at Generation Z and even Generation Y, these are digital natives that experience sports in a completely different way.”

Shields believes making the investment in such digital business and fan interactivity now can not only help ease the financial shock of losing gate  revenue, but will act as a complimentary feature to the fan experience when we’re able to go see sporting events in person again.

“It’s a real opportunity to deepen the experience with fans, to innovate new broadcast features, to being fans together via social conversation. Those are going to be really exciting places for the industry to experiment going forward,” says Shields.

Sporting leagues have traditionally been slow to adapt to emerging technologies. In 2020 they might be forced to adapt to survive. If they do they could even thrive.

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