5G in sports: Here's how event experiences will transform
The four areas where 5G can advance the sports fan’s experience are essential to reversing the current trend of aging sports fans and matching the continuing rise of media rights fees with improved experiences. It’s a task that could pull in a bigger crowd into venues, and bring stadiums and arenas closer to fans at home. It’s also a business projected to generate USD83.1 billion in revenues by 2023 in the US alone.
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The digital transformation of sports and media industries
The sports and media industries face two significant trends. The first is that the average age of the fan base is increasing. It varies between 40 and 64 years for classic sports, and hovers around the mid-twenties for esports. The second is that media rights deals for live sports are reaching extraordinary levels. Both these factors are putting the digital transformation of sports and media in play.
Attracting younger fans is a vital part of the revitalization plan. Sports compete with future fans' attention at an early stage. Similarly, video games disrupt the classic logical flow of players as children turning into fans as grown-ups. We can say then, that soccer's ability to attract youth and European soccer leagues' advanced use of 5G is worth tracking for inspiration.
Media rights deals are on the way up. Five major recent deals for the US set the pace. A USD7.75 billion deal covers the next six Olympics up to 2032, with the 2028 Olympics held in Los Angeles. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has a USD24 billion deal in place, valid until 2025, generating ÚSD2.6 billion per year. And the Major League Baseball (MLB) just negotiated a seven-year deal worth USD3.75 billion, or USD535 million per season until 2028.
The media rights deals for both the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) are up for renewal. From the current USD6.45 billion and USD200 million annually, to significantly higher numbers. NFL football was also in a unique position: 33 of the top 50 TV programs in the US in 2020 were American football games – this usually increases to 40-45 football games during a non-election year.
When it comes to devices, TV is still preferred for watching live sports, and is used by 40 percent of viewers. This is followed by desktops and smartphones. The most considerable shift is from TV broadcasts to live streaming. Live streaming of sports at home, or on the go, is the new media battleground between classic media giants and new streaming entrants.
5G plays a crucial role in transforming the fan experience delivered by the sports and media industries. This is a shared belief of communications service providers, leagues, franchises, venue owners, and media companies. We have seen a rapid built out of 5G capabilities by US service providers in more than 50 venues for major sports during the pandemic, but how can it truly enhance the fan experience? Here are my four key focus areas:
1. Improve the live experience for fans at venues
The first opportunity is to improve the fan experience at venues – an area where leagues, franchises, and venue owners cooperate closely. It started with 4G and WiFi in arenas and stadiums, but 5G allows us to take these experiences to the next level, to meet the often unsatisfied needs and desires of spectators.
Today, service providers offer 4G on existing data plans, and venue owners add WiFi capacity annually to meet traffic growth. The traffic patterns we see at the big yearly football game, approximately 1GB per fan and match over WiFi and cellular, are still relatively low.
There is a strong interest from leagues and franchises to transform the digital portion of the experience for fans attending live games, races, and competitions. The increased experience-value for fans of major sports' top tiers has monetization potential, even if charged in percentages of the overall ticket prices. For example, the NBA summer league in 2019 gave birth to 5G innovations for enhanced fan experiences at the venue.
2. Bring fans at home closer to the action
The second opportunity addresses the media experience at home or on the go. It’s an opportunity where leagues and media companies collaborate closely. Here, 5G plays a role at both ends, as a small screen for sports consumption and an always-connected camera.
A central part of the equation is to match fans' shorter attention spans with new content formats – short summaries consumed on a smartphone on the go, for example, or brief episodes filmed by athletes from their practice, preparation, and private lives, all filmed on a smartphone. This would also bring viewers closer to other fans and their experiences. Fan-generated content is one of the five fastest-growing content forms for sports.
Globally, 40 top sports have already explored 16 unique ways to enhance the fan experience in their direct-to-consumer offerings. In this fast developing area, growing insights about fans and their preferences are generating new innovations in experience. However, no sport currently offers more than four of the identified 16 options in the direct-to-consumer offering.
Eventually, we will have extensive 5G networks in venues serving both attending fans and media companies. Straight out of the gate, we expect networks for fans and media companies to be separate. The dedicated network for media productions can be either temporary or permanent, based on the type of venue. An example here is when a dedicated 5G network was first used to add new camera angles for the 2018 golf US Open.
3. Integrate pre- and post-event activities in to the overall experience
Third, we can consider expanding the physical event experience that starts and ends at the venue gates, to an experience that starts and ends in our home. Key stakeholders here are the leagues and franchises, venue owners, betting companies, providers or parking, and public transportation.
This area's scope varies greatly from commutes in the same town to international travel and multi-day visits for the top sport-tiers. International visitors care about great 5G connectivity – with an easy to understand business model – from their arrival at the airport, until they leave. The large majority of local fans will experience improvements for single-day events in, or close to, their hometown. In this case, it’s more about making the local commute with public or private transportation effortless, with a smooth venue entry and exit.
Revenues today are dominated by media rights, event ticket sales, sponsorships, and merchandise sales. Sports betting is a new area where 5G can make a difference, especially for latency sensitive real-time betting variants. Sports betting is legal in 22 US states, and 39 percent of American adults are current or potential sports betters. This emerging opportunity has the potential to develop into a significant sports revenue stream. Betting services depend on low-latency and would therefore benefit from 5G. As for many other financial transaction services.
4. Experience-centric sports districts
In the past, the focus has predominantly been on the fan experience at competition venues. But an emerging trend is the development of new districts around practice grounds for professional sports. These districts are putting new experiences in focus with widespread 5G connectivity. They can be part of a broader university campus or represent a unique real estate development.
Athletes and teams are data-driven already– for example, with digital support in their training sessions. Sensors in American Football players’ shoulder pads already track speed, position etc. The next step would be to introduce video at high resolution, combined with artificial intelligence. This could include tools to allow trainers and coaches to see details not visible to the human eye. For example, 5G played a role in race practice ahead of the greatest spectacle in racing in 2019 to give drivers feedback during the next lap instead of the next day.
Sports training camps are also an excellent location for sports medicine clinics. Both for the professional athletes training there and for regular citizens – health issues require specialist attention, after all. The very high demand for speedy recoveries makes this an ideal ground for any 5G-enabled rehabilitation innovations.
Beyond delivering a better practice environment, experience-centric sports districts are an attractive destination for fans. They’re able to get closer to athletes, more than they would at a competition venue. They also have more time to spend at a hall of fame without fighting for scarce entrance tickets. Retail and restaurants are also an integrated part of the experience.
Sometimes these types of experience districts are part of a university with multiple venues on campus. They’re essentially scaled-down smart cities, often planned from the ground up, involving an extensive stakeholder constellation across multiple industries. Network build is therefore an essential part of the master planning of the whole project.
5G in sports and media: Fans need more excitement not just caps
We’re at the beginning of the journey of leveraging 5G to transform the fan experience. This evolution has already started for the largest global sports and their pinnacle events. The ‘big game’ in the US every year gives us a sneak peek at what to expect. Once the pandemic is over, the first 5G-powered fans will be back, and testing innovations, and that’s when the big bets on how best to improve the fan experience – at venues, at home, and on the go – will pay off.
Here at Ericsson, we’ve compiled a set of cheat sheets to facilitate conversations on the topics above for service providers, leagues, sports franchises, broadcasters, and venue owners.
The innovation required to develop the fan experiences will evolve quickly and will vary by sport. If you are working on a new fan experience innovation that fits the outline above, reach out to the Ericsson Startup 5G team and 5G start-up lab to discuss if, or how, we can support you in bringing your invention to market quicker.
Thank you for reading/listening. As a true sports fan, I look forward to the new innovative sports experiences that we can create together.
 PwC:2021 sports outlook (for North America)
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