It has been an eventful year for IMG Arena, one which has seen the sports content and fan engagement provider clinch a series of partnerships with major players in global sports.

In a Q&A with the SBC Leaders Magazine after a huge deal with the MLS, IMG Arena President Freddie Longe broke down how the partners aim to enrich the fan experience in a data-driven era.

First off, how did the deal between IMG ARENA and the MLS come together? What makes the two organisations such a great match? 

The MLS is one of the most forward-thinking organisations in world sport. It has been a constant and meaningful innovator since its inception, making it a standard-bearer for the integration of new technologies. We are committed to helping rights holders grow their reach in the data age of sport and to be part of the MLS’s journey is a great honour.

As with any deal of this size and scope, it was a long time in the making, featuring an extensive RFP process. It is a ground-breaking, technology-led agreement with a multi-faceted delivery that completely revolutionises the fan experience.  

Let’s talk about how you can tailor soccer to a US audience. US bettors are more focused on individual props and see sports through a fantasy lens. How can data be used to help build up micro betting markets that will cater to a US audience?

The power of data is its ability to help audiences further understand and connect with the game in a digestible format. Our award-winning Event Centres – already successfully implemented in golf and MMA – offer a unique data-driven front-end solution that visualises data in a way that informs and engages the fan. 

Critical information, including the latest team form guides and insight on how star players are performing, will enable sports fans and bettors to become more comfortable in placing bets on upcoming MLS matches.

When you couple that with recent innovations and deals across US soccer, then data really comes into its own. For example, Apple and the MLS recently announced a 10-year, $2.5bn global broadcast partnership that will shake up how soccer fans and sports bettors immerse themselves in live matches. This unique deal means that for the first time, all MLS matches will be available directly through the streaming platform via a subscription model.

Crucially, the MLS is set to introduce an NFL-inspired RedZone service for viewers, delivering an elevated in-play experience on game days across a multitude of matches. For sportsbooks, this creates more betting opportunities and heightens the appeal to soccer fans and bettors. 

Despite soccer growing to become one of the most popular sports in the US outside the big four, engagement from a betting perspective has historically been relatively low. However, the next four years provides US sportsbooks with a major opportunity to attract and convert soccer fans into depositing betting customers. 

With the US, Canada and Mexico national teams all qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, sportsbook operators are in a prime position to lean on this hype and promote soccer betting markets throughout the month-long tournament. And as North America prepares to host the event in 2026, this is a pivotal period for soccer’s future growth. 

Data is a vital piece of the jigsaw puzzle to ensure more fans engage with soccer betting markets and ultimately leads to  more informed wagering decisions. 

How will you tailor your data collection and fan engagement approach to MLS, which is structured differently to traditional leagues?

IMG ARENA is committed to only using 100% official data. Content creation underpins our universe. Built upon our ground-breaking golf data collection methodology, our configurable scoring applications are designed to collect the fastest, most accurate and reliable data. 

The real point of difference comes in creating a connective tissue between data feeds. Currently there is a separation between data collection methods. This has limited the potential growth of soccer data, analytics and insights. 

FastPath, Event and Tracking data have largely existed as independent data streams and the synergies between them haven’t been unlocked. via the convergence of human and automated data collection we can provide MLS with fast and accurate data and powerful new data sets.

It then comes down to how you use that data and present it to fans. The new MLS Event Centre will play a key role in this by delivering innovative, data-driven content for soccer fans and bettors. It will combine MLS data feeds and live streaming, and present live and historical event statistics, data visualisations, and ultra-responsive markets via 2D and 3D interfaces.

Beyond data collection/distribution, how will this partnership benefit the MLS digital assets of, the MLS App, and related club Sites?

MLS and IMG ARENA will launch a suite of new digital products enabling the league, its teams and partners to use data, graphics and insights to enhance the game and further engage the digital MLS audience on, the MLS App and all MLS club sites.

The multi-year, global partnership will focus on the growth of the MLS fan base, with IMG ARENA delivering programmatic marketing and ad tech to assist MLS in building its audience share among the 3.5 billion global soccer fans.

Data plays an increasingly large role in how bettors decide on what to bet. What trends and types of data are you seeing bettors tending towards, especially when it comes to US bettors and soccer?

The US market has some of the most sophisticated consumers in the world. It is a completely blank canvas, so we are seeing a lot more creative thinking and convergence between rights holders, sports betting and sports media.

Our view is that we must develop our productized technology and layer in content and experiences across all touch points to keep fans immersed throughout the value chain. The growth of in-play betting and the importance of data here cannot be underestimated. 

There is also growth in demand for content outside of the big four. Recent analysis we commissioned with H2 Gambling Capital suggests that North America will see notable rises in market share of GGR for the following sports: Volleyball (15.5% global share in 2021 up to 27.1% in 2026); table tennis (21.3% up to 35.6%); MMA (43.0% up to 60.8%); and golf (45.1% up to 61.9%). We have some exciting plans in the works across all these verticals, building on the pedigree we have built in golf, MMA and tennis. 

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