Sporting US tech firms are in a league of their own - Richard Simpson

Athletes should think of themselves as characters in a story, much in the way that Pixar does with its films. Picture: Disney/Pixar
Athletes should think of themselves as characters in a story, much in the way that Pixar does with its films. Picture: Disney/Pixar
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Last month I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Leaders in Sport Conference at Twickenham, where the great and the good of global sport (plus me!) met to discuss the salient factors affecting the industry. Predominantly made up of sports clubs and federations, the main topics of conversation revolved around technology and storytelling.

As you would expect, US sports franchises led the way in digital innovation. We heard how the NFL, working in partnership with global sports tech firm Deltratre, had created a central platform for the league and all 32 teams. This enables the NFL to have central control of the league through providing teams with their own digital estate, primarily to ensure a quality user experience.

Arguably UK sports organisations need to rise to the challenge set by our friends across the Atlantic, says Simpson. Picture: Stewart Attwood

Arguably UK sports organisations need to rise to the challenge set by our friends across the Atlantic, says Simpson. Picture: Stewart Attwood

The main challenge this approach created, however, was providing individual freedom to each team, but a so-called “freedom within the framework” approach enabled teams to surface their own content, much in the same way that social media sites like Facebook enable users to control the content and layout of their own pages. What was fascinating was the level of cooperation among all 32 teams, especially when two clubs, the 49ers and Seahawks, agreed to be beta clubs and therefore guinea pigs for the whole league. Can you imagine that happening in the English Premier League?

Enhancing the fan experience

The NFL and other US sports leagues operate in unique environments compared to our football leagues in the UK, so it’s hard to imagine the US approach being taken up here, especially when promotion and regulation can create a turnover of clubs. But what about newer entities such as rugby’s Pro14 where there is no regulation, a new broadcast partner in Premier Sport and a more collegiate ethos?

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The conference also had plenty of references to how technology has been deployed to enhance the physical fan experience in stadia. The Cleveland Cavaliers have invested heavily in this, partnering with renowned chefs to enhance the food, creating tiers of hospitality packages to cater for a variety of different budgets and third party ticket platforms to provide dynamic pricing and season ticket exchanges to maximise revenue streams.

Athletes as characters

The second theme was storytelling and, as can often happen at this sort of event, one of the highlights was a non-sports speaker, in this case Pixar’s character art director who described the process of character development in one of the world’s greatest storytelling institutions.

The Pixar speaker noted that, thanks to digital technology and social media, athletes are increasingly able to develop and share their own content. New agencies are emerging that combine the skills of sports agents and broadcasters to help develop athlete content that frequently has no obvious link to the sports that the athletes are renowned for. And that is valuable to brand owners trying to find new ways to create deep engagements with fans. It’s essential, therefore, opined the keynote speaker, that athletes think of themselves as characters in a story much in the way that Pixar does with its films.

For me, what this event showed more than anything was the difference in mindset between Scotland and the US. Of course, US sports franchises have a wealth of resources thanks to the sheer volume of numbers. However, their ability to set the bar so high in the way that they grow and develop their sports businesses ensures that success proliferates.

While Scottish Rugby should be commended for its work in growing rugby audiences by consecutively selling out BT Murrayfield, developing the match day experience and the investment they made with my own firm Tayburn to deliver a world-class digital Match Day Centre through their website, arguably other sports organisations need to rise to the challenge set by our friends across the Atlantic.

We like to think that Tayburn’s insight, creativity, storytelling and tech can help do that.

- Richard Simpson, joint MD, Tayburn