We all know that technology is being used to improve sport. From GPS technology to help in training to Hawkeye and other systems being used to ensure correct decisions are made in a game. These things are obvious. But there is another way that sport is being improved by technology that probably doesn’t get enough of a mention: the fan experience.
Now I’m only 26 and it’s only in recent years that I’ve become sports mad and started paying attention on a larger scale, so I can’t properly say what it was like “back in the day” but some of these changes are so big they are clearly improving the experience for fans and possibly even drawing fans into the sport:
First up is one of the obvious ones: TV. It wasn’t that long ago that the average household only had 5 television channels. Now that we’ve had the digital switch-over, even someone without paid-for channels still has a much wider range of channels, including ones like ITV4 that will often show sporting events – just these last few months we have had live coverage of the Tour de France, Tour of Britain, Women’s Rugby World Cup and World Rugby U20s Championship! Red Button channels like on the BBC add even more chances for fans to watch sport, as we see events like Wimbledon and the Olympics shown almost in their entirety. Subscriptions for Sky and BT are much more common too, giving viewers access to multiple channels dedicated to sport, so we can see not just sport from the UK but also other countries (Sky show NFL, Super Rugby and Rugby Championship matches live). For those who don’t have the time to sit down and watch all the sport that is on, we are also treated to plenty of highlights shows on free-to air TV. Match of the Day has been a staple of the Premier League for as long as I can remember – except for those few years where we had The Premiership on ITV – and there are many similar shows for other sporting events, from daily highlights of the Grand Tour cycling events to Channel 5’s football highlights covering the Championship to League 2 and their Premiership Rugby highlights show, which they have recently acquired from ITV. If it is easier for someone to watch a sport on a regular basis, then they will be more likely to become fans of the sport. We are also starting to see some sports like the NFL and Rugby League using player mics to improve the fan experience even more by putting you right in the action. I love this as not only do we get some wonderful moments on the field like banter between opponents, but we also get a chance to see the way that players communicate in a game, much in the same way that the referee’s mic in rugby allows people watching on TV to understand what is going on.
Even with all these extra TV channels, it is still impossible for everything to be televised. That’s where online streaming comes in. I was disappointed by ITV’s lack of live coverage for the U20s World Championship this summer (they had highlights shows for each round but only the final was shown live) but World Rugby are very good at streaming games online if there is no TV coverage available in the country. I’ve lost count of how many matches I’ve watched on their website or Facebook page so far this year! NFL.com also has the option of signing up to NFL Gamepass, which allows you to watch all NFL matches live or watch them back during the week. Much like the increased TV coverage, the extra online coverage gives people more chance to watch a sport that they are interested in, and allows them to widen their experience of the sport to other competitions.
I mentioned Facebook above, but social media in general has been huge for sports fans. Just this last week I’ve had a conversation on Facebook that I haven’t seen since i left school about 8 years ago as he saw me post about the NFL! Personally I think that Twitter is brilliant for sports fans as you will find that the majority of teams/clubs will have their own dedicated account, as will many of the players, especially at the professional level. I absolutely love Twitter as it gives fans like myself the chance to not just keep up with games and news, but also interact with players and pundits in a way that fans would not have previously been able to do. It is also a brilliant place for fans to interact with one another, even if they have never met before. I doubt I’ve met even 10% of my followers on Twitter and yet a number of us can be discussing the exact same thing together from completely different countries. I can’t talk about Twitter without mentioning #rugbyunited which is led by fans and has helped bring rugby fans around the world together and even played a big part in arranging the RugbyAid charity match a couple of years ago. If you’re a rugby fan and haven’t checked them out, I highly recommend it!
Finally, there are games, a brilliant way to get people into a sport and help them get to know the rules and teams. EA are one of the biggest companies in the gaming world and they put out annual sports titles including FIFA (football), Madden (american football), NHL (ice hockey) and NBA Live (basketball). Unfortunately there has not been a decent rugby game for over 10 years now, but I will continue to hold out hope that we will get one soon. It was Madden that got me into the NFL, as I had seen games on TV when visiting family in the USA but had been too young to understand. However back in 2004 a friend from school let me borrow his copy of Madden 2004 and to say I was hooked is an understatement. When a game gets it right, like Madden and FIFA do, they can help you learn not just the basics but also enough of the intricacies of a sport and are a great way of learning the rules in a fun and engaging way. Not just this but they allow fans of a sport to broaden their knowledge by finding out about less known players and leagues – I think everyone has found at least one star before they were famous on FIFA career modes or playing Football Manager.
While video games are a great way for fans old and new, another type of game that is more tailored to existing fans would be fantasy leagues. For those who have never tried a fantasy league, they take real life matches and assign points to players according to their performance. ‘Fantasy managers’ select their squad and compete against friends in leagues for bragging rights, while many fantasy competitions will also have leagues for everybody from an individual country, fans of individual teams and also an overall league that contains every competitor. I have been doing the Official Premier League Fantasy Football for over 10 years now, competing originally against my classmates, then uni friends and now my work colleagues. However this year I wasn’t organised enough and missed the first gameweek so have instead focused on other fantasy leagues. I frequently use the ESPN fantasy 6 Nations competition and this year have also decided to attempt a fantasy NFL league and Fantasy leagues for the Pro14 and Premiership Rugby. The Rugby Magazine’s fantasy game for the Premiership is by far the deepest fantasy game that I have ever played and I am thoroughly enjoying it 2 weeks in! The good thing about these is that it encourages people to keep up to date with how a league is going in order to stay competitive against their peers, and it allows players to spend anything from a couple of minutes sorting their team to a couple of hours, depending how serious they are taking it.
And the best bit about technology: It continues to improve! Live sport will continue to become more accessible and companies will continue to find new ways to improve the fan’s experience with apps and games. And all the while, us fans will continue to interact on social media. Long may it continue…