Opinion | Get set to be pitched into the heart of the action

New technology is helping create an ‘all-access pass’ experience for sports fans, players and sponsors

I have always had a keen interest in sports. Growing up in India, cricket was and remains a focal point of discussions every season. This interest in sports then extended to Formula 1. Today, having been the managing director of Tata Communications’ F1 business, I’ve had the privilege of helping grow the sport to the global spectacle that it is today. I’m also a tech enthusiast—personally and professionally, having spent a long time in the tech and telecom industries. So, this is a dream job that allows me to combine my two passions in life and help pave the way for the sport’s digital transformation. Today, however, it’s not only F1, but sports organizations, broadcasters and digital providers, as well as commercial partners and sponsors, who are looking at different sports to create a fan experience that would turn casual viewers into active fans. They are all looking at how sports could transform their fortunes through more commercially viable content and distribution strategies.

This is no different in cricket and golf. Every sport wants to grow its fanbase and every business is looking for new ways to reach the millennials, a key audience. With the Cricket World Cup starting, I am sure that fans would like to engage with their heroes in different ways through the latest technology innovations. Digital technologies remain the key to delivering great content and experiences, rather than just serving as marketing platforms.

Cricket is a sport that unites India. It has over one billion fans globally, more than 90% of them from the Indian subcontinent alone. With the nail-biting conclusion of Indian Premier League 2019 and the just-begun World Cup 2019, cricket is the language India is speaking right now. Cricket fans are demanding a first-hand, up close and immersive experience of the intense field action. To cater to this, sports companies, association bodies, broadcasters, brands and marketers have all come together to offer fans a customized entertainment experience.

Robust tech infrastructure and a smooth delivery chain have enabled video streaming platforms to deliver live sports to viewers wherever they are. Broadcasters have also realized that cricket is a game of passion for Indians, and so it’s best to offer it in the viewers’ own language. Last year, IPL commentary expanded to eight regional languages, with more added this season. The result? IPL 2019 on a video-streaming platform recorded 18.6 million concurrent viewers for the final match, marking a new global record. For the entire season, it received over 300 million viewers, up from 202 million last year. IPL has enabled remote production technology to offer that experience, even as it centralized much of the core operations, managing them remotely from a single production hub. The new technology ensures smooth transmission of signals and multiple high-definition feeds straight from the cameras at the cricket stadium to the hub and then the viewer. For broadcasters, remote production is a big win in terms of cost savings, resource management and handling complex logistics. They have leveraged the best that technology has to offer in terms of network connectivity, cloud infrastructure, content delivery, security, and managing a seamless experience for fans with the help of tech companies.

Technology has enabled an upsurge in fantasy sports platforms as well. A fan experience starts way before the game begins, and this is where immersive technology comes into play. The popularity of fantasy sports mobile applications is a testament to how digitization can optimize fan behaviour and skills to literally get them into the game. Ardent fans have opinions and predictions from the time of team selection to the final whistle on the field. Fans can create their own teams, predict games by betting on them, and win prize money that goes directly into their bank accounts. Fan adoption of such platforms has been so good that we recently witnessed a first Indian gaming company enter the “unicorn club".

While fan engagement is rising, India has barely scratched the surface of digitization in the sports arena, a sector projected to hit $31.1 billion by 2024. Globally, the fan experience is being augmented by one innovation after another. From games streamed in virtual reality (VR) to smart stadiums that use intelligent automation, the fan experience is getting increasingly immersive. For instance, the 2017 F1 Grand Prix had a 360-degree live video trail that put viewers at the heart of the action, letting them choose how to watch and engage with the race. The 2018 FIFA World Cup had a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) assessing every goal or potential penalty without impacting the live drama. The next leap for India would be the adoption of Augmented Reality, VR and Internet of Things to deliver an “all-access pass" experience. This would be invaluable to fans, players and brand sponsors.

Marketers, aware that such digital platforms are where fans consume content, are trying to feature their products without interfering in the consumer’s experience.

From being part of the action, to travel partners offering convenient transportation and parking options, or food partners serving hot meals at your stadium seat and prizes being won right there and then, we are set to embrace disruptive technologies that do what couldn’t be done before. After all, sports is no longer just a game, it is an entertainment package.

Mehul Kapadia is Global Head of Marketing, Tata Communications