Op-Ed: How broadcasters are adjusting to the Virtual Fan Experience

23 Jun 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

As live sport returns to our screens, Tom Middleditch, Global Head of Digital, ELEVEN Sports, talks about fan engagement in the new normal.

Let me start by saying that in normal times I’m a match-going fan and a season ticket holder at Watford. No amount of digital innovation is going to fully replicate watching on TV with a packed stadium of fans, let alone the buzz of being at a stadium watching the game live.

That said, the digital geek in me is very excited by the challenge we now have to bring a huge amount of live sport to fans in a totally new way. 

As broadcasters the first thing we need to get right is packaging all this live action in a way that works for fans. After months without live sport, we’re now in a situation where there’s an unprecedented volume of games in a short space of time and we need to make it all as accessible as possible. Through OTT, we’re pretty well placed for this because we’re able to serve up multiple live games at the same time and give fans the choice of what they want to watch. I think we’ll see a move towards OTT services in the coming weeks, with fans attracted by the volume of live content that they’re able to access.

In terms of how games are made available to fans - an interesting initiative has been the introduction of virtual season tickets in the SPFL and other leagues. It’s a great way of offering some additional value to the most dedicated fans who want to see every game. 

We also need to focus on how we’re complementing our live offering with additional content and services. Many fans are using multiple devices to keep across everything and ensuring that we offer touch points across all the platforms fans want to consume their sport through is important. Our Portugal team introduced a WhatsApp service to deliver fans the latest highlights from games, and features like this are helping supporters keep up to speed with what’s going on in what’s now a crazily busy schedule.  

It’s important for us to create as much ‘atmosphere’ as possible around matchdays too and I think broadcasters have responded really welly to that so far. Sky and BT are offering ‘crowd noise’ options to viewers for Premier League matches and (though it’s obviously not the same) it’s been a helpful device for many fans looking for a return to ‘normality’. A big part of this is ensuring that the mixing of the crowd noise is reflecting what’s going on, on the pitch – including the occasional boo! – which so far has been done really well.  At ELEVEN we’re giving fans the option of crowd noise on our broadcasts and the results have been encouraging.  

There was a great initiative in Denmark a few weeks ago, using Zoom screens to give fans the chance to cheer their teams on virtually from inside the stadium. It’s been nice to see that idea adopted in the Premier League and elsewhere, with fans engaging with games directly via the stadium big screens. Broadcasters are also making a conscious effort to engage fans directly in their broadcasts in a way we haven’t seen before. I’m hoping to see more examples of that kind of fan engagement in the coming weeks, particularly for supporters who’re used to getting to games and cheering their team on in person. It’s something we’re thinking a lot about in Belgium where ELEVEN will be the home of the Pro League from August.  

Offering a sense of community to fans stuck at home also needs to be a big focus. At ELEVEN we pioneered the Watch Together tool a couple of years ago, which gives fans the chance to watch games together in a virtual living room. BT and Sky have followed our lead here and introduced similar features, which is great to see. I’m looking forward to trying it out for a Premier League game soon - being able to share the ups and downs of a game with others is massive for those of us used to watching games with our mates so it’s good to see the technology rolled out so widely.  

Now is a time to be creative and innovative like never before and whatever happens – we finally get to welcome back a packed schedule of live sport to our screens. It isn’t quite the same as before of course, but it’s still pretty special.