How technology is transforming sport

The technology benefits for enhanced productivity, greater efficiencies and new revenue streams are significant. So it is no surprise that sports organisations are innovating every facet of their on-field and off-field operations too, writes Steve McCaskill.

The greater use of data, cloud technologies, and digital tools are overhauling existing processes and enabling entirely new ways of working. Last year, the worldwide sports technology market was valued at $8.9bn (£7.4bn). By 2024 it is expected to be worth $31.1bn (£25.9bn).

“Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen increasing demand in the sports industry toward digitisation solutions,” Fadi Naoum, SAP’s head of sports and entertainment tells ERP Today. “There’s a broad understanding of the benefits that integrated end-to-end IT processes can bring to improve performance and sales in sports just like in every other industry.

We’re co-innovating solutions to streamline and advance all areas of our business, not just on the backend, but on the pitch and in the stands.


“Sports organisations have been growing massively, turning from pure sports clubs to small and medium enterprises. The structures they’re relying on – no matter if it’s HR, sales, finance or team management – are very much alike to businesses. Hence, the use of business applications helps clubs and organisations digitise sports performance management by coordinating all administrative, training and team management, scouting, and medical processes.”

SAP counts some of the world’s biggest sporting clubs and federations among its customers, including the German national football team, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and the National Basketball Association (NBA), assisting with business operations and on-field performance.

“Like any other company – and every sports franchise is a company – digital transformation is crucial for FC Bayern Munich,” says Stefan Mennerich, Bayern Munich’s director of media, digital and communication. “We’re co-innovating solutions to streamline and advance all areas of our business, not just on the backend, but on the pitch and in the stands. Our players are benefitting from real-time insights and medical and coaching staffs that can access up-to-date player information from anywhere in the world.”

These organisations have access to standard SAP services such as ERP and SuccessFactors for HR. But to better serve the industry, the company has created a dedicated platform called SAP Sports One. Powered by cloud and analytical capabilities the platform helps with team management, match analysis, player fitness and scouting.

When results are decided by the finest of margins and the potential rewards so lucrative, organisations are now leaving no stone unturned in their quests for glory and revenue.

Wide ranging partnerships

Infor is another vendor with its eye on the sports industry, striking deals with Ferrari, New Zealand rugby side and the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets among others. These partnerships include a mixture of sporting and business applications, with a marketing element thrown in for good measure.

“Typically, our partnerships cover a range of areas: this may include providing data-driven insights to boost performance, positively impacting fan experiences, and facilitating overall team business operations,” explains Infor’s vice president of marketing in New York, Jeff McDowell.

“Partnerships give us a powerful opportunity to extend our brand in the marketplace and there is a clear commercial element where we work with our partners to deliver solutions to create business efficiencies, augment fan experiences and drive performance,” he said. The Nets partnership is one of the most wide-ranging, with Infor software used in the back office and on the court. Analytics and data science is applied to team performance and player wellness, providing real-time insights for the coaches during games.

We tried to find the best solutions for everything from payment systems to electrics.


Levelling the playing field

But this isn’t just taking place at an elite level. Technology is giving smaller teams access to some of the scouting and analytical capabilities that have previously been reserved for larger, better-resourced outfits. Leatherhead FC’s unlikely push for promotion last season was in part related to the non-league football club’s use of AI (artificial intelligence). Specifically, IBM’s Watson cognitive computing platform analysed match statistics and reports, video footage, and social media to assess performances and scout the opposition.

Coaches can see in which area of the pitch fouls were being conceded or chances created and identify the variables that cause such events to occur. A dedicated application allowed the coaching team to ask questions in natural language and present findings to players who were generally more responsive to criticism when provided with evidence.

Increasing revenues

Intelligent software is also helping organisations to strengthen relationships with supporters. The use of CRM (customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) platforms allow clubs to understand more about their fans so they can increase ticket, merchandise and catering revenues.

At Real Madrid, the Microsoft Digital Sports platform collects data from various ecommerce, media and membership platforms to build a profile of each supporter. The club is able to see the age, location and activity of each fan, potentially increasing revenues. For example it is possible to determine that a US-based fan is attending their first ever match and target them with an offer to visit the museum.

Modern stadium upgrades allow personalisation to take place in real time. Wifi networks, mobile ticketing, and cloud-based data platforms will allow clubs to track fans across an entire match day, pushing personalised offers to their device. For example, someone sitting in a certain part of the stadium will be invited to receive a half-price hot dog from their nearest food stand.

“Special promotions such as discounts, membership cards, and apps can be integrated into the point of sale,” adds SAP’s Naoum. “The sale can also be personalised. For example, the solution recognises existing customers by the customer number or directly by QR code using a smartphone or tablet.”

Fan engagement

But sport is no longer just about the match day experience. Sports federations and clubs now devote significant resources to their content operations, hoping to attract new fans and deepen the relationship with existing ones. After all, the more interactions that a fan has with an organisation, the more data there is to build their user profile and the more likely they are to spend money.

Multi-channel content operations see news, videos, and live scores distributed via social media, mobile applications and official websites. Meanwhile, streaming is giving unprecedented access to live events.

The greater collection of data is not just transforming organisations internally, but enabling entirely new user experiences. Since 2015, NTT has partnered with the organisers of Tour de France to collect data from the bikes and the course in real-time and turn it into insights for television and social media. This allows broadcasters to explain the more difficult elements of professional cycling to new viewers and provide more in-depth analysis for seasoned veterans.

Machine learning is a natural extension of this. Formula 1 generates more data than any other sport in the world and has been practising ‘Big Data’ since before the term was coined. It uses the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud platform to crunch 65 years’ worth of historical data to explain team decisions to television viewers and even identify the optimal time for a pit stop.

As a multi-billion pound industry it is surprising that sport has been comparatively slow in the uptake of technologies. But when results are decided by the finest of margins and the potential rewards so lucrative, organisations are now leaving no stone unturned in their quests for glory and revenue.

The role of the smart stadium

For all of the revolutionary applications enabled by digital transformation, the physical infrastructure required to harness these new opportunities is also significant. The digitisation of sport has prompted a re-evaluation of the role of the stadium. Sporting arenas built in the Victorian era aimed to get in as many people as possible. Decades of underinvestment and decay ushered in a wave of construction and upgrades in the 1990s and 2000s, aided by the modernising force of television money. But at the start of this decade, there was a recognition that venues would need to become more technologically advanced.

The smartphone had changed the expectations of fans who now wanted to access social media and mobile applications during events, while the analogue process of selling tickets was no longer suitable for data-hungry organisations seeking new revenue streams. Public wifi, which allows organisations to gain more information about their fan bases, is an important element of this transformation. But the US, where stadiums have traditionally been more advanced, was a natural source of inspiration for other innovations.

Most venues have had advanced networks retrofitted but some have been able to incorporate technology into the very fabric of the arena. At the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, which finally opened in 2019, a high bandwidth network supports just about every single function on-site. This includes turnstiles, CCTV cameras, digital signage, Point of Sale (PoS) systems and, of course, public wifi. All of this data can be fed into backend systems that help the club understand how fans behave before, during, and after a match, so they can be better served and targeted with personalised offers.

Italian club AS Roma also plans to bake technology into its long-awaited new stadium. Because stadium construction takes a long time and technology can become outdated very quickly, the club plans to make it as easy as possible to upgrade. “We tried to find the best solutions for everything from payment systems to electrics,” said AS Roma’s Chairman, Jim Pallotta. “Everything we do doesn’t have to be bleeding edge but we need to have an open architecture so if we upgrade, it’s plug and play.”

But improving connectivity is more difficult if the field of play covers a much larger area. At the 2018 Ryder Cup, a network comprising 700 access points, 130 switches, and 200 km of fibre was deployed across a 150 acre site. The network supported everything from television screens and wifi to retail operations and the press centre.

Whether it is a smart stadium or a connected course, the deployment of next-generation infrastructure gives organisations greater visibility into how they operate and allows for the collection of data to optimise the business.

Five ways technology is transforming sport

Community sport. Mobile applications are aiding the development of grass-roots sport by simplifying management and easing the administration burden on volunteers. Cricket Australia says it won’t rest until the management of a club can be done entirely on a smartphone and has launched an application that helps with tasks such as scoring. In England, the FA (Football Association) has teamed up with PayPal to build an app that allows amateur players to pay their match fees online. The current cash-based system sees 40 percent of fees uncollected.

Fan engagement. Digital is an important tool in how sports can acquire new audiences and maintain existing fan bases. For those who will never attend an event in person, mobile apps and video content offer the next best thing. Wimbledon devotes significant resources to its digital operations, including the use of IBM Watson to create data-driven insights and chatbots that boost accessibility. Organisers also use AI to automatically edit highlight packages that can be distributed rapidly across various channels.

Mobile ticketing. Traditionalists might baulk at anything but a paper ticket but mobile ticketing is more convenient, efficient and secure. It allows tickets to be tied to a particular customer, opening a wave of commercial opportunities and personalised services. UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) is using blockchain to guarantee validity, making it difficult to create forgeries or for touts to get their hands on multiple tickets to sell at an inflated value. It also gives venues greater control over who can enter the stadium.

Broadcasting. Just as satellite and online streaming have revolutionised sports broadcasting in the past, 5G will make production cheaper and easier. Wireless cameras will reduce the number of camera operators required and increase the range of creative possibilities. The ability to transmit images reliably and rapidly to a central production facility will eliminate the need for a production truck at the venue, allowing teams to work remotely on multiple events a day.

Event management. As sport becomes more data-driven and reliant on technology, connectivity becomes an increasingly important consideration. For global sporting events like Formula 1 and golf’s European Tour, the challenge is multiplied by the need to build temporary venues in all corners of the globe. Both have partnered with Tata Communications to ensure access to guaranteed levels of throughput for their operational and media teams wherever they are in the world.