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Generative AI, VR goes mainstream and social media fragmentation: Seven sports tech trends to watch out for in 2023

A more mature sports tech landscape will emerge over the next 12 months, powering everything from fan engagement through to in-stadium experience. SportsPro’s technology editor outlines the developments set to occupy the attention of the industry this year.

13 January 2023 Steve McCaskill
Generative AI, VR goes mainstream and social media fragmentation: Seven sports tech trends to watch out for in 2023

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The ties between sport and technology are strengthening with every passing year, as athletes, clubs, governing bodies, broadcasters and brands use new innovations to improve on-field business, identify operational efficiencies and grow revenues.

Big tech companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft are partnering with some of the biggest names in world sport to deliver enterprise-grade infrastructure and services, while a burgeoning startup ecosystem has the flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit to create entirely new markets.

Despite a challenging macroeconomic environment, sports technology companies secured US$7.3 billion in funding up to the end of 31st October, according to SportTechX, while Drake Star Reports says there were 734 deals reached in the sector in the first nine months of 2022.

The next 12 months will see the widespread adoption of previously experimental technologies, the first steps into entirely new arenas, and a few market corrections along the way.

The ties between technology and sport will strengthen in 2023 

1. The sports industry explores what’s possible with generative AI

The sports industry has adopted artificial intelligence (AI) technologies for everything from digital content creation to predictive injury prevention. But just like in the enterprise world, these algorithms have analysed existing datasets to automate actions, detect patterns, and deliver recommendations. Generative AI is able to create something entirely new from these insights, paving the way for a wave of new creative and functional opportunities.

Companies like OpenAI and tools such as ChatGPT can provide nuanced answers to human questions, while DALL-E can create images based on these requests. The ability to generate stories, images and even video will be hugely valuable to the sports industry, which can leverage the technology to create everything from marketing materials and news articles through to customised multimedia content.

AI is already used to create video highlights but based on pre-defined parameters. Generative AI could allow fans to request certain packages or sponsors to ensure their branding is always in sight. Perhaps it will even be possible to create customised non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

The benefits are equally applicable to elite and amateur sport. Indeed, generative AI could unlock activities for lower-league, recreational and youth sport that were previously impossible given a lack of resources.

This enthusiasm should be tempered with some words of caution. The technology is still in its infancy and, as anyone who has read an automated baseball box score report will tell you, some use cases are a work in progress. There are also ethical questions about generative AI given its ability to synthesise human voices and images. 

But the seeds for a revolution have been sown. The market is expected to be worth more than US$110 billion by the end of the decade, according to one study, and OpenAI alone is valued at US$29 billion with suitors keen to make sure they don’t miss out on the next big thing in technology.

Australian Open offers ‘art ball’ NFTs infused with real-time match data

The Australian Open launched a unique NFT project last year (Image Credit: Australian Open)

2. Web 3.0 matures into something meaningful

Nuance is hard to find in conversations about Web 3.0. Evangelists believe blockchain-based technology is the answer to all of sport and society’s ills, while critics refuse to believe NFTs will ever amount to anything more than exploitative vehicles for speculation. What will unite the two disparate camps in disgust is a suggestion that the answer isn’t black and white.

There have been several NFT projects that have used sport as a way to convince the public to part with their cash. Some have either been ill-thought out, others have been get-rich-quick schemes. In both scenarios, people were left out of pocket as markets crashed. But just because digital assets can be ‘owned’ in Web 3.0, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are valuable. True, some NFTs will be financially valuable in the same way a piece of artwork is, but others will have a similar price trajectory to real-life goods and exist for a purpose.

The next 12 months will see the sports industry take a more considered approach to Web 3.0 and recognise the long-term benefits of the technology as opposed to the short-term revenue gains. Digital goods will acquire actual utility, foster a sense of community, or provide fans with tangible satisfaction. Blockchain will provide a different model for new and existing use cases, whether it’s for ticketing, membership or trading cards and the value of these assets will either be negligible or linked to this utility.

Buying something in Web 3.0 will be like buying something in the real world and not necessarily as an investment.

3. Mixed reality finally gains some traction – but not the metaverse

Virtual reality (VR) has been around for several technological generations but has yet to find an audience. There has been shortage of ambition, but there has been a lack of demand from consumers and the adoption of devices and infrastructure required to produce, distribute and consume VR content.

There are signs this is about to change. Meta’s insatiable quest to reposition itself has driven awareness, attracted developers and delivered some compelling use cases. The National Football League (NFL) has an officially licensed NFL Pro Era game that puts players in the shoes of a quarterback, Golf+ is helping amateurs hone their game, and there are professional-grade training applications. Meanwhile, Sony is hoping the PlayStation VR 2 will gain supporters among more hardcore gamers, and HTC launched the more portable Vive XR Elite headset at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. 

The reliance on gaming and the cost of hardware remain barriers to adoption, but if Apple’s long-awaited augmented reality (AR) device finally makes an appearance in 2023 then it could be a milestone year for a technology that has always threatened to break into the mainstream.

The metaverse will continue to find its feet, however. There will be more partnerships, more proof-of-concepts and plenty of innovation from some major players in the industry, but there isn’t yet an audience for these new digital environments. The metaverse might be the future but 2023 won’t be its breakout year. 

4. The battle of the platforms heats up

The sporting world used to have clearly defined limits. Broadcasters, publishers, developers and bookmakers operated in their own sphere of influence, with fans moving between them for different things. The digitisation of sport is acting as a centrifugal force for these previously disparate services, with the emergence of multi-functional platforms that believe specialism is no longer the recipe for success.

These platforms might still have a core proposition, whether it’s video, content, or something else, but this is enveloped by a suite of supporting capabilities that encourage users to spend as much time as possible in an application or ecosystem. This generates more data and more revenue opportunities.

DAZN is adding betting, social features and NFTs to its streaming service, OneFootball offers a range of multimedia and Web 3.0 experiences, and FanDuel is getting involved with video. Fanatics, an ecommerce specialist, is also launching a bookmaker.

But perhaps the most intriguing platform will be Apple’s iOS once its partnership with Major League Soccer (MLS) partnership comes into effect. It will be fascinating to see how the iPhone’s new sport-specific features and native applications help support the company’s biggest rights move to date.

5. Reports of the death of connected fitness will prove to be exaggerated

2022 was the year that a connected fitness market that boomed during lockdown underwent a painful correction. Demand for high-end equipment waned as fitness fanatics returned to the gym and the status associated with such a purchase dimmed. Peloton, the leading light of the industry, streamlined and cut jobs.

But all of this will mean greater democratisation and put the segment on a steady long-term footing. Peloton is making its equipment available via Amazon and offering refurbished bikes via eBay, while its platform is available on multiple devices. Apple Fitness+ is going from strength to strength by opening up to anyone with an iPhone, not just an Apple Watch, while platforms like Zwift are still making waves and Netflix is offering fitness content from Nike Training Club.

The content is there, and wearables are still selling strong. Indeed, hardware continues to attract interest from investors too, securing 18.4 per cent of all sports technology funding in 2022, according to SportTechX.

The difference is that it will be used with wearables, or no devices at all. The days of tightly integrated hardware and software are over, but connected fitness remains an optimistic space to be in.

Stadiums are using technology to close the gap with the at-home experience

6. The digital stadium isn’t science fiction

There have been countless pitches from tech industry executives over the past decade (and maybe even longer) about how technology is going to revolutionise the in-stadium experience. They delivered a utopia of how you could order food and drink from your seat and watch replays on seat-embedded screens.

Both expectations and technology have moved on significantly. Getting a burger and a pint delivered to you in the stands at a packed Twickenham Stadium seems fanciful, and the smartphone negates the need for dedicated equipment to be installed. Modern stadiums are being built with futureproof infrastructure and others are being retrofitted.

In 2023 it looks as though the technology has matured to solve specific problems, venue operators have the confidence and the resource to invest, and spectators have the appetite and willingness to adopt new methods. Expect mobile ordering, in-stadium 5G applications, and smart signage to proliferate, along with more checkoutless retail, biometric entry, and blockchain-enabled mobile ticketing.

“Conversations will move more into specific interest groups…[and] we think that ultimately communities will develop around products like NFTs and work through technologies like blockchain.” 

Lewis Wilitshire, Chief Executive, Seven League

7. Social media is splintering

Social media is a fundamental part of the modern sporting experience whether at home or in the stadium. Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are all popular platforms to share and consume sports-related content, but few have the influence – if not the reach – of Twitter. The ongoing uncertainty at Twitter since Elon Musk’s US$44 billion takeover in October has led to a reassessment of the industry’s relationship with the social network when it comes to content creation and advertising.

Some brands have concerns about content moderation, while others lament the job cuts that have impacted Twitter’s sports business. Twitter will still have its supporters and remain an important tool for sport, but the questions raised reflect a wider shift away from the era of unfiltered, public social media.

Facebook is now as much about private groups as it is about the newsfeed. You could argue that Instagram and TikTok are consumption platforms and WhatsApp groups are hotbeds of conversation. Even Twitter has recognised the way the wind is blowing with its Circles feature.

In the Web 2.0 era, message boards and forums were the earliest forms of user-generated content, with communities forming around common passions, often under pseudonyms. While we are unlikely to see the mass adoption of a sports-specific social network, Discord and Reddit are becoming important channels and offer an insight into where things are going.

“There’s a been a pivot to privacy in the industry and we think the days of the public timeline across all social media…is coming to an end,” Lewis Wiltshire, chief executive of Seven League, tells SportsPro. “Anyone who follows me on Twitter is going to see posts about the San Francisco 49ers, Tottenham Hotspur and that time I went to a Bruce Springsteen gig. That’s fundamentally a weird proposition – why would anyone other than me be interested in all those things?

“Conversations will move more into specific interest groups…[and] we think that ultimately communities will develop around products like NFTs and work through technologies like blockchain.” 

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