Is it time for sport to get real in the digital age?

Digitalisation and rapid advancements in technology are affording sports bodies new and exciting ways of engaging their fans. Yet human connection runs deeper than digital interaction. In an industry built on tribalistic passion and raw emotion, understanding behavioural and societal trends remains as important as ever.

Is it time for sport to get real in the digital age?

“We see many, many parts of life with over-digitalisation already,” says Thimon de Jong. “How can we not over-digitalise ourselves, our businesses or our relationships, and use technology only for what it is best for, to only have the positive sides, not the downsides?”

Digitalisation has fundamentally changed society. For better or worse, virtually every facet of our personal and collective lives - from education, work and the media, to big industry, government and, of course, sport - has been digitalised. The way we experience the increasingly connected world around us has shifted rapidly and irreversibly from the real to the virtual, opening up new markets and creating new business opportunities whilst impacting human behaviour in ways that could not have been imagined just two decades ago.

“One of the main things digital technology has done is that we’re constantly distracted,” says de Jong, the founder of Whetston Strategic Foresight, a think tank which studies human behavioural trends and interprets the business impacts of societal change. “When you used to have people in the stadium, or you used to have people watching the match on television, or when you were doing that sport yourself at the fitness club or the golf course, you were there. Now we have this device that is constantly taking us out of the experience, taking us out of the event. You don’t have the full attention of viewers, participants, visitors, anymore. People hop in and out of their attention.”

The idea that attention spans are dwindling in the digital age is nothing new. A 2015 study conducted by Microsoft found that, on average, attention spans have fallen to just eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. Humans - or at least the Canadian media consumers Microsoft studied - now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, and it is only getting shorter. “The true scarce commodity” of the future, said Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft, will be “human attention”.

In response to our collective, device-induced attention deficit, sports bodies are seeking to adapt and abbreviate. Some traditional sports have devised shortened formats to cater to time-poor audiences, largely inspired by cricket’s successful introduction of Twenty20. Speeding up play, too, is another area of focus, with Major League Baseball (MLB) and the leading golf tours among those experimenting with new ways to appeal to a modern day fanbase that is less inclined to watch lengthy games and drawn-out broadcasts. Meanwhile bite-size, made-for-social content has become a crucial part of the sports industry’s increasingly fractured media output, with video highlights cut and clipped in real-time to satisfy our need for instant gratification.

Yet a shorter attention span does not necessarily denote less time for engagement. Rather, the focus of our attention has shifted from the real world to the virtual. According to comScore’s 2016 US Mobile App Report, the time Americans spend engaging with digital media has grown by more than 50 per cent in the past three years, with nearly 90 per cent of that growth directly attributable to the mobile app. In short, connected devices have opened up new platforms and opportunities for engagement, enabling sports fans to proactively interact and engage more, whether they’re debating news events, sharing their live experiences on social media, or tuning into subscription streaming services. 

On average, research suggests, we now check our phones up to 150 times a day, so what is driving this inexorable urge to enter the virtual realm? Some believe it is physiological. Research points to the way in which endorphins are released when we check social media, for example, giving us the same feel-good factor as when we exercise or eat a satisfying meal. According to de Jong, this subconscious physiological impulse is so strong that our fixation with technology is, “at a neuro level”, comparable to a drug addiction. “It’s not a fad or a trend or a hype - from a neuro perspective it’s literally as addictive as a drug,” says the Dutchman. “Compare it to a cocaine addiction, for example. It’s the same part of the brain, that pleasure part of the brain, which fires up.”

Considered in that way, it is clear why almost every sports entity is choosing to feed the addiction rather than encourage rehab. Indeed, the vast majority are investing greater resources into engaging fans through technological means - or, to put it another way, dishing out regular hits of digital dopamine to those who can’t help but fiend for it. But this is hardly a new phenomenon. Sports bodies have long seen themselves as entertainment brands and media properties: content creators driven by advertising revenue and membership subscriptions as much as matchday and merchandise sales. Across the board they have strayed far from their core competencies, so much so that generating sharable, snack-size moments has become as much of a focus as creating real-life, in-the-moment sporting experiences.

Take today’s burgeoning sports tech sector. Having started out with the odd flirtation with mobile apps and an industry-wide determination to put super-fast Wi-Fi inside stadiums, the sector has morphed into a multi-billion dollar monster. Sports entities, convinced that technology is the future of fan engagement, have gone all-in to the point that the boundary between sport and technology is being warped and contorted all the time. Major leagues have set up dedicated tech offshoots, while tech startups are the investment of choice for many business-savvy pro athletes. Competitive gaming might not be considered a real sport just yet, but it is fast becoming mainstream - so mainstream that the National Basketball Association (NBA) is launching an eLeague and eSports are attracting significant corporate sponsorship. Virtual and augmented reality are now the reality, and all this is happening at a nauseating rate.

The question for some, then, is how much tech is too much tech? There are, of course, obvious commercial benefits in offering fans the opportunity to order food and merchandise from the comfort of their seats while posting selfies on Instagram. For one, all this engagement generates vast amounts of valuable consumer data. But when the live event becomes secondary to creating digital content - a means for mining costumer data and generating likes or impressions - is the whole thing not in danger of becoming no more memorable or impactful than a throwaway video of, say, a puppy chasing its own tail?

“Of course, from a commercial perspective, you want people to share as much as they do,” says de Jong. “But then, if you look at the research, if you experience something via a device or you take a picture of something, the memory - how it’s imprinted in the brain - is less. If people then go home and they remember the event, it’s actually less. Why? Because the memory is stored in a digital environment and not in your own memory.”

“We have to get used to these algorithms knowing us, maybe knowing us a little bit better than we know ourselves."

The notion that emotional connectivity is somehow dulled by over-digitalisation should provide pause for a sports industry that enjoys touting the passion of its fanbase and seeks to capitalise on that financially. Whereas consumerism denotes a straightforward transactional relationship, sporting fandom implies at least some degree of emotional connection. If digital overkill is a precursor to emotional indifference, desensitisation and, by extension, a reduction in engagement, it stands to reason that commercial revenues tied to digital offerings might fail to meet expectations, particularly since marketers and advertisers now value engagement times over click rates and impressions.

But it could be that there is a tech solution to combat consumer apathy, too. Emotional artificial intelligence “is going to be the next big thing” when it comes to fan engagement, insists de Jong, who specifically points to the example of Affectiva, a US emotion recognition and analysis company whose software, developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, can detect facial emotion with 98 per cent accuracy through a camera in a device. He also notes the way in which companies like Amazon and Netflix are experimenting with emotional AI and mood data to help predict consumer behaviour, and he foresees numerous potential applications for such technology in sport.

“For example, in the US, if you take a baseball match, which is exciting sometimes but boring a lot of times, you can actually see when people are excited or when they’re bored,” he explains. “If they’re bored, [you can see that] this person needs stats now or some entertainment. With their digital device you can give them stats or real-time information. With the connected athletes coming, you can measure all kinds of things on the pitch. Let’s get some heart rates, or we know what kind of person that is, what kind of players he or she likes, what kind of games, and we give him or her personalised information based on their emotions. That is going to be the next big step.”

Emotional AI could well prove revolutionary as companies and sports bodies seek more advanced ways of personalising and customising their services. Yet de Jong believes it could be years before consumers are comfortable with the idea of being surveilled by their own devices. While he says smart customisation is the future for almost every industry, it is likely to take time before the algorithms that underpin intuitive technologies are accepted into the public domain, particularly since surrendering control to AI and machine learning makes humans feel uneasy.

“We have to get used to these algorithms knowing us, maybe knowing us a little bit better than we know ourselves,” he adds. “As societies, these algorithms that are going to help us make decisions and give us abundance of choice, abundance of information, we actually like that. But not when that’s too soon and too sudden.”

Thimon de Jong is the founder of Whetston Strategic Foresight, a think tank which studies human behavioural trends and interprets the business impacts of societal change.

But it is not only technology that is being rejected in this age of constant connectivity - trust in institutions is at an all-time low, too. Recent events in global politics have conspired to breed uncertainty and scepticism, leading some to reject globalisation as well as the values and forces that underpin it. The politically disenfranchised and economically dislocated have grown disillusioned and disoriented by events beyond their control. As Mark Zuckerberg noted in his lengthy manifesto entitled ‘Building a global community’, published on his Facebook page earlier this month, ‘across the world there are people left behind by globalisation, and movements for withdrawing from global connection.’

‘There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course,’ Zuckerberg wrote.

Greater connectivity and our relentless pursuit of growth appears to have, paradoxically, narrowed our collective view of the world, giving rise to so-called ‘filter bubbles’, echo chambers, and online communities and value systems that tap into our innate desire for validation and reinforcement. It is an idea that Barack Obama addressed in his farewell speech shortly before vacating office in January. “For too many of us,” warned the outgoing US president, “it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighbourhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.

“In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”

In sport as in politics, people are accustomed to taking sides and identifying with one thing over another. That tribalistic mentality is one of sport’s best-loved attributes, but it also creates problems for those in charge. Just as trust in governments has diminished, international federations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Fifa, soccer’s global governing body, are viewed with suspicion, their names tarnished by years of scandal and politicisation. Public scrutiny of their leadership has heightened, catalysed and accentuated by enhanced communication and the speed and distance with which information travels in the digital age, while both organisations are struggling to convince even the wealthiest, most developed cities and nations of the value of staging their costly flagship events.

“A lot of people are rejecting the size, the money, the corporatism,” notes de Jong. “If you look at organised sports, sport has a huge challenge, a bit like the financial world had in 2008 when we had the big crash. I think sport is still neglecting that. Why? Because everybody loves sport and athletes and their heroes so much.”

But ‘big sport’ - or any sport, for that matter - should not take the apparently unconditional loyalty of its fanbase for granted. De Jong believes sports bodies must not only listen to their audiences if they are to thrive in this post-truth, low-trust world, but adapt accordingly. Collaboration with third parties that can bring credibility and legitimacy, he suggests, is key. “My advice to any leaders in this field is to embrace what is called an open-source attitude,” he adds. “Have an open-source attitude - you can’t do it alone anymore. You might have been able to do that in the past but you have to work together and you actually enhance trust just doing so, instead of keeping all the doors closed.”

"Millennials are actually very conscious of what is happening in the world and what is needed for positive change."

De Jong’s advice comes at a time when people are shunning the views of traditional experts in favour of peer recommendations. Nowadays there is a sense that western society pays greater heed to online consumer ratings and peer reviews than traditional advertising, heavy-handed corporate messaging, or a contrived client testimonial. Community-oriented startups and peer-to-peer marketplaces have flourished on a rising tide of individualism and entrepreneurship. What’s more, crowdfunding is now an effective way to get a project off the ground, with micro-businesses or small-scale ‘conscious brands’ that champion a specific cause proliferating on a groundswell of peer support.

These wider trends show how, across society, mindsets are changing, and how the certainties of old are being challenged like never before. Those in sport continue to witness this shift first-hand. Sponsorship and broadcast rights, traditionally the industry’s primary revenue streams, are generally not the reliable sources of income they once were. In many sports, sponsorship is growing progressively more difficult to come by as marketing belts are tightened and budgets are channelled towards social influencers and their large followings. In the US and elsewhere, the grip of the traditional cable bundle is being eroded all the time, weakened by upstart direct-to-consumer offerings intent on shaking up the status quo. Meanwhile corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability programmes are no longer seen as optional but as strategic imperatives.

All this makes understanding consumer behaviour and attitudes, particularly those of millennials, sport’s most coveted demographic, all the more important, according to de Jong. Many of the problems faced by mainstream sports boil down to credibility or image issues - issues that are complex, interrelated, and do not have simple technological fixes. Though the IOC’s Agenda 2020 reforms, to use a recent example, have led to the launch of the Olympic Channel, the committee’s new over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, and incorporate what the IOC likes to call ‘urban’ sports into its Games programme with the expressed aim of engaging a more youthful audience amid a deepening Olympic malaise, any expectations that millennials are going to be drawn in their droves could prove misplaced.

Millennials are, generally speaking, a discerning consumer group who value authenticity, says de Jong. Defined as those born between 1980 and 1995, their lives can be charted alongside the recent explosion in technology and communication. While they were once considered the Myspace generation of ‘you only live once’ self-branders - or, as de Jong puts it, a “generation of self-entitled narcissists who are only busy with their Facebook profile and a picture of their latest latte macchiato and their day at the beach” - the definition of a millennial is now widely accepted to have evolved. As time has passed, this cohort of digital natives has matured in sentiment as well as age, leading some sociologists, de Jong included, to refer to them as ‘conscious positive realists’.

“If you deep dive into the research and look at interviews with millennials, they are actually very conscious of what is happening in the world and what is needed for positive change,” explains de Jong. “Environment being a top, number one priority, but they are actually quite conscious and aware of the state of the world and the challenges we have.

“Millennials are positive and realistic in the sense that if we’re going to do this, it’s going to be baby steps. If you compare them to, for example, the baby boomer generation like my parents, the hippie generation who sat in the park and played guitars and used illegal substances: if we sing about peace, love and happiness it will be alright. You can even look at Live Aid that way - if we have big concerts and sing about problems, they’ll solve themselves. Millennials are like: ‘With little baby steps, we can make a change. What can I realistically do?’

“If you’re a business or an organisation in sports, you need to offer millennials the steps they can do and not organise huge concerts where they sing about change. They already have that.”

Besides offering technological gimmicks, it could be that principled, moral leadership and ethical practices are necessary to truly connect with these younger, conscious, positive, realistic members of society. For de Jong, a self-professed optimist, there is no straightforward answer. But he believes that for all the cynicism swirling about the world today, we are in fact entering “a should era”, one in which the morality of our actions will be considered as carefully, and valued as highly, as the pure legality or profitability of them. “Digital is definitely a part of that,” he says, “but it’s also ‘I can have a factory and pollute the world but buy-off my carbon footprint’ or ‘I can have all my products being made in Bangladesh or Vietnam and avoid local labour laws’. I can do that. Everything is legal, but should you?”

Sport, as a far-reaching and influential global business, is a key part of this wider social dilemma. For if self-interest and the pursuit of individual profit has got humanity to this point, contributing to real-world phenomena like over-population, resource depletion and human-caused climate change, an industry that places great value on youth is ideally positioned to initiate action and affect positive change for future generations.

As Zuckerberg wrote: ‘Building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs. 

‘Whether they’re churches, sports teams, unions or other local groups, they all share important roles as social infrastructure for our communities. They provide all of us with a sense of purpose and hope; moral validation that we are needed and part of something bigger than ourselves; comfort that we are not alone and a community is looking out for us; mentorship, guidance and personal development; a safety net; values, cultural norms and accountability; social gatherings, rituals and a way to meet new people; and a way to pass time.’