The hype around NFTs in sports has died out, as has the huge general upsurge in interest in the digital products witnessed over recent years, but other forms of innovative technology still hold potential for the space.

For IMG, machine learning will have the ‘most immediate and profound impact’ on sports rights holders in 2024, with benefits yet to be realised across content creation, customer service and predictive analytics for sales and marketing.

NFTs out, AI in

NFTs were all the rage throughout 2021 and 2022, and the furor around what the products could pose for sports was buzzing – various clubs and leagues, from England’s Southampton FC to the NHL, were engaging with the space.

In 2023, this interest began to tail off, as Endeavor-owned sports and media business IMG noted in its 2024 predictions report. Instead, Machine Learning and AI will be the attention grabbing technologies for sports stakeholders next year.

According to IMG, immersive technologies in sports “will be significantly improved by AI/machine learning and the rapid acceleration of computer power which has always been needed to create truly immersive worlds”.

These immersive experiences will ‘not be fully felt’ in 2024, but the use of machine learning and AI will help refine and strengthen these products to become market-leading by 2030, the group’s report asserts.

The list of tech which can benefit sports, and which can in turn benefit greatly from machine learning and AI, is extensive. It includes spatial computing and mixed reality for 360-degree broadcasting and fan engagement, stereoscopic camera lens and spatial audio to connect the physical and digital realms.

“Sports will need to stay across advances in motion capture and 3D modelling that could see sports events rendered in new environments: rights holders that lead the market in 2030 will be the ones testing and learning in 2024,” the report summarised.

AI’s sporting value

In contrast to NFTs, which despite their surge in popularity remained a niche among much of the general public, AI has become accepted much more quickly – with no better example than ChatGPT.

The biggest impact this can have on sports is understandably with content creation – which has so far been the main function ChatGPT has been used for by general consumers – although this has come with its own challenges for sports stakeholders, such as creation of fake interviews with athletes.

However, in the long-run, sports businesses have the opportunity to ‘unleash AI on their own data’, IMG believes, such as by using Large Language Models (LLMs) to identify opportunities from datasets. Meanwhile, the content and marketing opportunities of AI will remain and if anything, continue to grow. 

“In 2024 sports organisations will have a clearer idea of how to use AI and will do so to cut (unlock efficiencies in their processes), create (develop new and innovative content formats and marketing campaigns) and cultivate (identify new commercial opportunities in large data sets),” the report explained 

“We expect LLMs to get better and for more competition between AI interfaces to emerge. Services will differentiate themselves based on their proprietary datasets, conversational style and, of course, price.”

Women’s sports leads digital race

The rise in popularity of women’s sport in 2022 and 2023 was undeniable – looking at football alone, the 2022 Women’s Euros and 2023 Women’s World Cup were two of the most viewed female tournaments in sports history, and also caught significant commercial interest.

At the close of 2022, IMG had predicted that investment in women’s sport would continue to climb in 2023 – the following year, the group projects that cash injections will continue in line with an upswing in audience engagement.

Followers of women’s sport are a ‘digital-savvy audience’, IMG stressed, with online communities developing as a result of fans having to seek out information on their favourite sports via digital platforms.

All sports have been going through a ‘digital journey’, but IMG believes that women’s sport is going through this cycle faster than men’s sport ever did’, and that the signs of this will become clear in 2024.

“2024 being an Olympic year means we’ll see women’s athletes catapulted to global stardom – this always happens in this part of a four-year cycle,” the report stressed.

“The female superstars of Paris 2024 will have greater opportunities than their predecessors to convert this through digital platforms into commercial income.”

Stadiums and socials

There are three arenas in which sports engage with its followers the most – the physical side, in the stadiums themselves; the broadcasting side via media deals; and the digital side, such as through social media.

Much has been said about the rise of ‘smart stadiums’, which bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds of sports to create a new era for fan engagement. To keep momentum on this, however, IMG asserts that sports stakeholders will need to invest in the right tech.

Tottenham Hotspur and San Francisco 49ers’ stadiums have been the ‘trailblazers’ in this area, and in 2024 it is highly likely other high-profile sports teams – also the ones with the biggest budgets – will follow suit.

Smart stadia hold numerous opportunities for stakeholders – contactless transactions require payments providers, data warehousing and CRM need the right tech partners, and the venues “will help rights holders unpackage their sponsorship proposition, enabling the creation of more targeted advertising for brands”.

“Technological advancements are now enabling rights holders to better reflect fan passion and partner needs, generating a better experience and more revenue. In 2024, your stadium will get smarter than ever.”

Meanwhile, for social media, IMG’s main conclusion from 2023 is that sports stakeholders need to stop using this term, which suggests two-way conversations between individuals rather than engagement between organisations and customers.

“By taking the emphasis off the social, sports organisations can and will reassess how they distribute and syndicate content and messaging in 2024,” the report emphasised.

X – formerly Twitter – Facebook, Instagram and TikTok (the classic quartet as IMG put it) will remain the ‘correct prioritised mix’ for some, but for others WhatsApp, YouTube, Spotify and Discord will pose the best engagement opportunities.

On social media, IMG left stakeholders with this advice: “Take your strategic business objectives and overlay your key target markets to find the correct balance for your organisation. In 2024, the forward thinkers in the sports industry will focus on a platform’s potential impact rather than simply adhere to tradition.”

To read the full IMG Trends 2024 report, click HERE

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