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“Any innovation has to satisfy a customer’s needs”: The DFL’s vision for the future of sports tech

Following the announcement of the German Football League's (DFL) partnership with the upcoming Ignition event, Andreas Heyden, executive vice president of digital innovations at the DFL Group, lifts the lid on the future of the burgeoning sports tech sector.

2 May 2022 SportsPro


In December, SportsPro welcomed the German Football League (DFL) as launch partner of Ignition. One of the most forward-thinking rights holders in sport, the organisation will support the inaugural event’s innovation competition, which is designed to recognise the most innovative tech providers, as judged by a global panel of experts.

The pinnacle of the competition will see DFL present the SportsInnovation Award and work with SportsPro to provide the winner with significant support throughout 2022. This will include a US$100,000 growth package across SportsPro’s media and event portfolio and direct involvement in the DFL’s dedicated sports technology event, SportsInnovation 2022, which takes place on 11th and 12th May 2022.

Following the announcement of the partnership, SportsPro caught up with Andreas Heyden, executive vice president of digital innovations at the DFL Group, to discuss the new collaboration and the future of the burgeoning sports tech sector in general.

What does the word innovation mean to you and the DFL?

One of our core beliefs is that any innovation has to satisfy a customer’s needs, be it a broadcaster, OTT platform, licensee, you name it. But secondly, it has to support the fan experience and make the Bundesliga product more accessible, more enjoyable, more entertaining, and drive more engagement.

Sport has always been the sandbox for innovation because people care about it. For us as a sport, as you need devices to watch which are not traditionally the TV set, you need new ways to transport it because it’s always global and it is live, so you need to innovate around it to stay accessible, to stay relevant, and you need to push the technological boundaries to make it more entertaining each time.

Innovation is one of the main drivers and differentiators from other leagues, where we, as the Bundesliga, claim to be the most innovative football league in the world. And I think we live up to that promise.

Through our “glass to glass” strategy, we are creating a constant stream of output, be it our 2009 augmented reality (AR), or our case on 5G before 5G was really relevant. We also broadcast in UHD before there were a significant amount of UHD TV sets. We enhanced the TV broadcast with artificial intelligence-powered insights into the game before anybody else did it in football sports broadcasting, always with the fan experience in mind.

Another first for the DFL is your event, SportsInnovation. Why is it important and what’s the rationale for the DFL behind hosting its own event?

We are living in an ecosystem where we are constantly learning and trying to push the technological boundaries, and it is our goal to create an event where various sports leagues, clubs, broadcasters and suppliers come together in one place. The USP is that the application of technology, which is always very important for us, is showcased in a live stadium with live games being played.

Sometimes you see exhibition games but there is not a real marketplace, and so we created a marketplace where leagues, clubs, broadcasters and suppliers can come together and see the real-life application of their technologies and services.

Why did the DFL choose to partner with SportsPro on Ignition and how does that fit in with the whole innovation strategy?

SportsPro is known to be very innovative in the design of their events and their magazine.

We talk a lot about the areas that we are strong, but SportsPro helps to strengthen us in certain areas, too. They have great credibility, an international network, and a forward-thinking mindset.

We believe that the larger an organisation becomes, the harder it is for it to renew and disrupt itself. Sometimes you need these fresh young ideas which question the status quo, which maybe even disrupt your own business model. Startups can extend or broaden your offering by partnering with them. You need the love for breaking the rules, and this is what you find with startups and scale-ups.

For the startup, it is important to remember that most successful companies are not doing the product with which they started; very few companies are able to stick to the original product vision. But it is still important to retain that overall vision.

If you have that, work out what it will take to bring your product to market. But, if necessary, be agile enough to pivot or even partner with others to ensure the product succeeds.

How do you see the future of sports technology?

With all the upcoming technological experiences – from crypto to the metaverse and the multiverse – I think we have to take a look at the change of customer behaviour. We, as media companies and technology companies, assume that people want to expand their own worlds – through sports simulation gaming, for example. By creating virtual worlds and spending their time with their friends and with brands we make people want to live there.

So we’re asking: does the fan really want to move to extended reality? Because if so, then the next question we have to ask ourselves, does the representation of sport have to play to the same rules in the virtual world?

If you take something like Rocket league, for example. It’s esports, but it’s played in space, playing football with cars. This is not just a technical expansion of the reality, because you enter this virtual world but also you play by different rules.

So for us, what’s the next extension of reality for broadcasting? Do we have TVs in future, or do I have some kind of device and I just stare at a blank wall and the game appears? Most importantly, is this something that customers really want or is it an investment-driven, technology-driven vision, which will not manifest in the application of technology in relevant products for the customer. Is the reality enough? That’s a big question for me.

What about for 2023? What is the next step into the future?

The first step is devices that will enable the extension of our reality – smart glasses, virtual worlds, for example. We are going to get a first glimpse of what’s going to be possible – not what is definitely going to happen, but what is possible – in the next ten years.

I think we will be moving to a post-smartphone era. This is already happening now with Apple Watch, for example, so we could see the first glimpses of moving into a post-smartphone era.

And finally, I see the radical shift of shutting down broadcasting technology and enabling it with digital broadcasting technology. These would be the three things I would be looking into for 2022. It promises to be an exciting year.

This article forms part of a daily series of exclusive insights from some of the foremost organisations and thinkers in sports tech, released in the lead-up to Ignition, SportsPro’s new home for the sports industry’s technological transformation. Find out more at Ignition.sport.

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