London // On a mild winter night in east London, hats and rakish scarves abound as the cream of Silicon roundabout – the area of the British capital fast becoming a European Silicon Valley – converges on the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane.
The event is the latest in a series put on by the UK Sports Network, with three panellists charged with identifying future trends in digital sport.
Alex Balfour, the head of new media at the London 2012 Olympics, says that such is the recent shift to mobile technology, many sports-related websites would not bother setting up websites for desktop computers were they starting today. Mr Balfour is presently the chief digital officer at the marketing and communications agency The Engine Group.
Another panellist, Graeme Harrison, the head of digital and social at marketing and advertising agency Fast Track, argues that despite rising take-up, the appointment to view element of live sport is so great that this will not translate into more people watching on mobile devices. “People don’t want to watch sport on delay, they want to watch it live on a big screen,” he says.
But the rapidly changing nature of digital content will consign traditional post-match reports to the past, says Mr Balfour. “People don’t want to read the long-form copy any more [after a race or a match],” he says. “They want to see the data and the tweets and the photos. The more you can give, the more people want.”
Ali Donnelly, a fellow panellist and the head of communications at the English Premiership rugby side London Wasps, sees smaller sports such as rugby union making greater use of their access to players and matches not covered in broadcast rights agreements.
“Using technology behind the scenes is something we can get on with,” she says. “Players have so much free time so we just give them a camera. Also, there’s live streaming of live games of less interest. Live streaming is quite new for our sport, but if you are not selling the rights in a certain country then why not give fans there a chance to see it and sell sponsorship packages around it?”
The panel also saw a rise in the use of multi-screen watching, with fans viewing sports events on one screen then following, say, a Twitter feed on a mobile device for additional coverage – an example of how the crossover between broadcast television, digital content and the internet is rapidly changing.
ITV recently re-screened the 2003 rugby World Cup final on the recent 10th anniversary of England’s famous win over Australia. Instead of simply re-running the game, the match was watched by a handful of England players who were involved, and were encouraged to tweet their thoughts.
Other emerging innovations include an augmented reality mobile software application being developed for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, while the advent of ultra high-definition television is expected to boost the viewing experience. But the proverbial unseen elephant in the room and the internet is how to turn all these digital innovations into income, particularly for clubs.
When Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web, free access to all was at the heart of his innovation. Some newspapers are putting up paywalls but that credo continues to hinder clubs that are looking to exploit their digital presence in commercial terms.
The internet can give fans a greater connection to clubs such as Manchester City’s FanCam, which allowed supporters at the club’s home Premier League fixture with Tottenham in January last year to tag themselves in a huge 360-degree photo from the game.
Clubs are also turning increasingly to social media for key announcements. For instance, Queen’s Park Rangers announced its signing of Christopher Samba in January this year via the Twitter app, Vine.
Yet all the friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, do not bring any income despite sports clubs’ increasing focus on this area, particularly football clubs.
In 2010, a survey by the sports research firm Sport+Markt, now part of Repucom, showed that Barcelona had 4.2 million Facebook followers, yet surprisingly was only the second most popular club in Europe on the social media site behind Galatasaray of Turkey.
Repucom’s global head of digital, Garth Farrah, says: “Many clubs around the world are still only just starting to realise the monetary value of their social media presence. Indeed, engaging with fans is important, but in this case marketing the emotions of the club is vital.
“Clubs have a rich source of exclusive content available to them, and the big clubs especially are starting to become less reliant even on third-party media to communicate to fans. It is this rich source of content which they must bring to life if they are to monetise their social and online presence.”
Since the original report, there has been a massive push by Europe’s leading football clubs, particularly the big five leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France to gain popularity on social media. By this month, Barca had 48 million Facebook likes and nearly 11 million followers on Twitter.
This drive is part of a wider agenda as Richard Gillis, a sports marketing specialist and previous UK Sports Network panellist, explains. “The numbers you see published by the big clubs on likes and followers are a version of media value numbers,” says Mr Gillis.
“They are there to make a statement about the size of the audience, in order to push the price point of their sponsorships up. There’s a big difference between having a gazillion followers – which is easy, given football’s profile – and actually engaging with them, which is hard and requires investment, arms and legs.”
Experts cite a well-developed social media presence through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and new media such as Instagram as offering five sources of revenue: ticket promotion; e-commerce, licensing and gaming, membership programmes, and sponsorship and advertising.
Giuliano Giorgetti, the head of internet and new media at Serie A club AC Milan, told the Soccerex conference this year that more than 70 per cent of the club’s 1.6 million Twitter followers lived outside Italy.
When Milan comes to renegotiating sponsorship deals, these sort of figures will impress sponsors as Shergul Arshad, the digital business director at Serie A rivals AS Roma, attests. Mr Arshad cites Roma’s burgeoning social media presence as key to his club clinching a 10-year sportswear deal with Nike.
Repucom’s Mr Farrah concludes: “Once you have your captivated audience, it is all about the club’s CRM [customer relationship management system] system. How clever clubs are at marketing to this engaged audience through real-time advertising, linking back to special offers and exclusive deals, this is the question.
“To properly realise the financial value of social media, you must be able to truly understand the audience. Advertising and then monetising the relationship is strengthened in this way as clubs are able to use social media to turn quantity into quality advertising.”
So while the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media are unlikely to cost sports fans directly, they are certainly helping clubs make more money as the digital revolution marches onwards.