The Ascension of Technology in a COVID-19 Sports World
2020 has witnessed the emergence of the frightening coronavirus pandemic and one of the hardest hit industries has been the entertainment sector.
In fact, to this day, many entertainment businesses, such as Hollywood, Broadway, and Performing Arts, have been unable to resume their daily operations due to sanitary protocols.
However, one entertainment business that has been able to resume its usual activity is live sports.
Since May, sports leagues, such as Major League Baseball, the Barclays Premier League, and the National Basketball Association, have either announced a restart plan or have actually resumed their respective seasons.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that live sports look tremendously different as teams are no longer playing in front of an audience. This way of playing, watching, and living sports is the new normal and it might be the case for another 12 to 18 months.
Sports fans are extremely critical not only from a financial perspective, but also from a loyal fanbase standpoint; in fact, a strong and loyal fanbase arguably ensures the longevity of an organization. After all, banning fans from coming to live games is sports’ biggest loss due to coronavirus.
However, there are ways in which teams and associations are catering to live sports fans in order to offer them the closest experience to what they were accustomed to.
More specifically, sports leagues are using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced software to create a more real, exciting, and vibrant atmosphere for both the players and the fans during these troubling times.
Fans hold a high financial stake in the sports industries, and the recent pandemic has halted their gross benefits. Sports leagues like the NBA usually generate most of their revenue from television, merchandising, sponsorships, and ticket sales.
As the season went on an indefinite hiatus after Utah Jazz’s center, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the virus, the league’s future finances looked uncertain.
With quarantine policies and stay-at-home orders, the lack of revenue streams from ticket sales were by far the most threatening determinant of the NBA’s profitability. In fact, according to TicketIQ, the professional basketball league is expected to lose roughly $690 million from ticket sales due to the pandemic’s entry ban on fans.
This estimate in ticket sales loss does not include the playoffs, nor does it take into account revenue losses generated from TV contracts, merchandise, and sponsorships.
Unfortunately, the NBA could be losing more than $1 billion in revenue if it had decided to call off its season. To put into perspective of what $1 billion is worth to the NBA, it recorded $8 billion in revenue during the 2018-2019 season.
It is clear that the league could not afford to cancel the remainder of the season. Commissioner Adam Silver promised basketball fans that the NBA would in fact return with a whole new game on July 30th. Of course, due to the ongoing pandemic, a season restart would imply banning fans from attending games.
Earlier in the year, the NBA announced that it will restart the season with its innovative Disney World “bubble” proposal.
In a $170 million effort to save its 2019-2020 season, the Association would host 22 teams, including players and staff, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to compete for seeding matchups and play in playoffs games.
The renovated sports campus is home to hotel rooms, weightlifting rooms, practice and in-game facilities, barbershops, golf courses, lake fishing and many more leisurely outdoor activities.
While this entire proposal is fascinating and is deemed successful up to this point, as the NBA has yet to record a new positive coronavirus case since its season restart, many are wondering how management is covering its predicted loss in revenue.
Given that merchandising, sponsorships, and TV rights revenue streams are probably staying the same during these unprecedented times, how is the league raising funds that were once generated from ticket sales?
The NBA’s plan to make money in the “bubble” is through advertising and engaging fans to tune in for the games.
The way the league is planning on accomplishing these two goals is through a wide range application of artificial intelligence and technology.
As an initial measure to engage fans and reproduce the natural environment of a live sporting event, the National Basketball Association decided to implement a virtual grandstand.
Thanks to its partnership with Microsoft, the NBA is able to host virtual fans displayed on 17-foot tall screens that wrap along the perimeter of the basketball court. At every game, over 300 fans are brought together on a common background via AI and are shown on these massive screens.
Each virtual fan is chosen by his or her respective home team, must sign a waiver, and agree to a code of conduct. Before each game, virtual fans must log in to Microsoft Teams from a device of their choice in order to be able to watch the game.
From their devices, a feature called Together Mode ensures that half of the screen is dedicated to watching the game while the other half allows you to observe the fans in your section. Supposedly, this technology creates a unique live atmosphere by allowing virtual fans to screen the game ahead of those who decided to watch the game on television.
On this platform, like at the arenas, fans will be able to interact with each other, cheer, and have court-side views of the games.
The NBA’s Tech team has installed about 30 microphones beneath each court so that the broadcast offers accurate and real sounds from the live action to its virtual fans.
Moreover, to create a heightened sense of live sporting reality, the players and the broadcast are exposed to a combination of audio from fans, pre-recorded chants from arenas around the league, and sounds from the home teams’ respective master of ceremonies. Lastly, Microsoft incorporated a “tap to cheer” button, which enables virtual fans to increase the crowd intensity for their home teams.
While fans are objectively the largest missing component to live sports and home court advantage, the NBA also had to figure out a way to create a physical “home atmosphere” that would resemble the designated home team arena. In the Disney “bubble”, there are only three regulation sized basketball courts for 22 teams; as a result, home court personalization on a game to game basis seemed to be very financially and time intensive.
Alternatively, the league provided this home environment by ensuring home viewers would be able to see the appropriate placements of marketing and advertising opportunities through digital superimposition.
This provides a more traditional and authentic viewing experience for fans who are accustomed to watching games locally as each team’s respective logos and sponsors are showcased on the court digitally. The league is also exhibiting its national and corporate partners in the same fashion. By doing so, the National Basketball Association is able to regain some of its lost revenue streams from sponsorships and marketing.
Game audio is a crucial underutilized perk that can easily be monetized given the absence of sports fans. Fans around the world have always wanted to hear exclusive conversations among players, between players and referees, or even between players and coaches.
There is nothing more entertaining than hearing two superstars taunting and firing up one another. The social media activity of younger generations, investments in audio software platforms such as Spotify and Twitter, and the microphone technology able to record in-game audio and stream it live to the public have set the foundations for huge market potential for live audio interfaces in sports.
Despite all their benefits, all of these digital and virtual systems will not be able to provide and capture the same emotional reactions that an in-person game attendance would; however, it’s the closest simulation to reality technology can offer at this point. Indeed, this entire virtual atmosphere can be awkward at times and users will without a doubt experience their fair share of technological glitches.
Nonetheless, as more leagues around the world start using these features, the intelligence and software behind virtual technology will improve and reach heights of enhanced reality.
In fact, in countries like South Korea, some baseball organizations have used cheering robots to act as fans during league games amidst the ongoing pandemic. Artificial Intelligence and technology have a very bright future in the world of sports considering it is very unlikely we will see in-person fan attendance in stadiums anytime soon.
Written by Kevin Ma, Edited by Gihyeon Eom, Calvin Ma & Alexander Fleiss
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