It can sometimes feel as if sport thinks it is immune to broader technological advances, potentially because the moat of fandom has traditionally protected it from changes in consumer expectations, needs and trends. A good antidote to this industry echo chamber is to understand where technology at large is going, and then translating what that means for sport.
I may be a little bit biased as an SXSW advisory board member and Austin local, but South by Southwest (SXSW) is one of the best places to get a read on the “what’s next?” question for tech. For the uninitiated, SXSW is a ten-day convergence of parallel tech, film, interactive media, and music conferences, as well as festivals and summits, that has been held in Austin, Texas annually since 1987. After a two-year hiatus from physical events, the festival – which spans tech, music, film, comedy, sports and wellness – was back in-person from 11th to 20th March.
So what were the key themes and learnings from SXSW 2022 and how do they apply to sport?
More NFTs than you can poke a digitally collectible stick at
There were 40 official SXSW presentation sessions expressly devoted to NFTs and outside of the conference rooms you couldn’t move for a brand activation or conversation involving NFTs.
As an attendee, the most common exposure to NFTs was via free POAPs (Proof of Attendance Protocol). POAPS are Ethereum-based NFT badges for participating or attending an event – physical or virtual. The most basic way to think of a POAP is as a souvenir digital ticket stub sitting on the blockchain.
Blockchain Creative Labs (BCL), Fox Entertainment’s NFT studio, hosted an event with WWE to launch their Web3 partnership. Attendees collected a POAP that enabled exclusive NFT drops following the event. SportsPro isn’t following Instagram in hosting NFTs (announced by Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at this year’s SXSW), so you’ll have to deal with a screenshot of my WWE Web3 x BCL POAP (for now).
Digital collectibles are cool but what else do you get from that ownership? How can you be rewarded for your participation in, and loyalty for, a particular community?
“Utility” was the axiom of how NFT conversations can be taken to the next level. A basic example is that BCL has plans to send future exclusive content directly to owners of the WWE POAP to keep them engaged long after the event has ended, but beyond further content or collectibles, NFTs are able to serve as a reward system for physical and virtual experiences.
One of the most notable activations showcasing this was by Doodles. Doodles is a collection of 10,000 NFTs designed by Canadian illustrator, Burnt Toast. Its activation featured standard SXSW fare (free food/drinks, merch, speakers and concerts) but with a special VIP experience for owners of the Doodles NFTs. The highlight being a closing party DJ’d by Diplo, exclusively accessible to Doodle owners. As one Twitter user (and Doodles owner) phrased it, an NFT is ‘not just a JPEG. It’s a key to the metaverse and beyond.’
The applications of this to sports are obvious. It’s an avenue to directly connect with your “genuine” fans who are at the game – or participating in an online event – and continue to build that relationship through further benefits. This is much of the same value provided by crypto fan tokens but with arguably a less risky experience for the fan. Some current issues with cost and environmental impact aside, minting NFT season tickets isn’t too much of a stretch from what’s possible now.
Diving deeper into the metaverse
One of my favourite presentation sessions was by Peter Moore, whose impressive CV makes him uniquely positioned to comment on the future of the metaverse and sports. Moore is currently the senior vice president of sports and live entertainment at Unity, the gaming and 3D software company, and the former chief executive of English soccer giants Liverpool, with previous leadership roles at Sega, Microsoft and EA Sports.
From these experiences Moore identified that gaming and sport have a lot in common. Both appeal to diverse, geographically dispersed fans that thirst for content 24/7. However, sport still has a lot more to learn from gaming, primarily by focusing on building digitally accessible communities. The process of building a business from this community begins with acquiring fans, engaging those fans, and then looking for opportunities to monetise (in that order).
The majority of the presentation focused on the middle section of the value chain in engaging fans with the basic view that all “live” experiences in the future will be immersive and interactive. A real-time, personalised and gamified 3D experience is the future reality of consuming sports. Hitting on another future tech trend, Moore believes the ubiquity of fully autonomous vehicles will give us more opportunity and time to immerse ourselves in these live experiences.
Former Liverpool CEO Peter Moore was on hand to discuss the metaverse
Moore stressed that the virtual world doesn’t threaten IRL (in real life) sports. He cited the success of EA Sports and FIFA, whereby the video game drives engagement and interest in soccer (especially amongst younger demographics) rather than cannibalising broadcast audience or game attendance.
He also likened now to the era in the UK that he grew up in, when there were no live sports on TV because sports administrators were afraid people wouldn’t attend in person if they could watch from the comfort of their home (or the pub). This protectionist mindset has proven to be false and so it goes with sport’s fear of improving and innovating the home viewing experience into the metaverse.
Moore was asked how venues can upgrade their facilities to stay relevant in the brave new world of the metaverse. Aside from the obvious investment in 5G internet, the answer is volumetric cameras to capture the action and get “impossible” camera angles that fans will soon expect as part of their immersive live sports experience.
The final takeaway from SXSW was from startup sports property Overtime Elite League (OTE). The Atlanta-based league is an alternative to collegiate sports for athletes aged 16 to 19 years old looking to turn pro. Players earn a minimum of US$100,000 and the league offers full health care benefits as well as a tailored academic curriculum. OTE also offers up to US$100,000 for players to use toward college tuition in the event they don’t make it to the National Basketball Association (NBA) or other professional leagues.
Sports has a fundamental challenge of a legacy audience using legacy channels. The younger generation of digitally native fans are largely consuming content away from linear TV and these same fans have a greater interest in following an individual athlete’s journey rather than a particular team.
OTE leans heavily into trends of the athlete-first creator economy and short-form digital content, with game highlights accessible on Overtime’s social media accounts rather than linear broadcast. Although OTE is a disruptor league it still has big name incumbents in the sponsorship space with major partners like Gatorade, State Farm, Meta and Topps.
According to OTE commissioner and president Aaron Ryan, if you’re going to be a disruptor you have to signal speed: to yourselves, to your market and to your potential employees. The league was announced in March 2021, the inaugural season started in September 2021, and the final championship just wrapped up in March 2022.
This speed also needs to be combined with a mission/purpose that people rally behind. With OTE outlining its mission to empower young athletes and better serve fans, the league has essentially executed the opposite playbook (at least from optics) to the disastrous (but potentially not dead) European Super League.