Rebecca Hopkins, CEO of the Sports Technology Awards Group, talks to us about the industry and reveals her thoughts on what to look out for in sports tech this year.

The sports industry is an interesting space and one often misunderstood by those outside it. For example, people think sports executives operate in a world awash with cash (if only), when, in truth, its real currency isn’t financial, it’s a mix of passion, brilliance, hope and fan loyalty. The tech that taps into these are the ones most likely to succeed.

Another misconception about sports, and one with which I take issue, is that it is quite a static space. Certainly, there is a tangible ‘blazer brigade’ in some quarters – those who block innovation for unfathomable reasons – but, if the Sports Technology Awards’ entries are anything to go by, it is a sector which is both highly innovative and dynamic.

One of the joys of being involved with the Awards – and its latest venture, the STA Start Ups – is that entries reveal what trends to look forward to (and what over-hyped tech is unlikely to be bothering the masses any time soon). With this in mind, here are the Sports Technology Awards team’s predictions for 2018:

  • Wearables: when we launched the Awards, wearables were the hot topic with the category leading the volume of entries by a very big margin. While the value of this market has tripled over the past four years, to an estimated US$5.8bn, this growth has been in the non-elite portion of the market. With a few exceptions, popular wearables measure steps, sleep and hydration, which has value for the mass-market, especially with the rising degree to which wearables have integrated into kit. However, elite players are now concerned with insights, such as DNA-led metrics. When wearables catch up with this, expect some exciting disruption in the space.
  • Performance analytics: the propensity and the range of analytics launching recently is staggering and is set to continue. However, the space is rapidly getting crowded and consequently it is also getting increasingly niche; as with wearables, we expect the market will rationalise quickly. An additional consideration in this space is the role of broadcast, with a lot of companies creating software expecting to leverage the broadcast market; however, with data ownership coming increasingly to the fore (i.e. who owns athletes’ stats and how public should these be made), the feasibility of this revenue stream is yet to be tested.
  • Athlete welfare: governing bodies are increasingly under moral and financial pressure regarding athlete welfare, opening up the market to provide solutions. The way sport is managed makes technology the perfect way to ‘go to’, since it sits neatly with governance protocols – i.e. solutions can be standardised, tracked, measured and universally imposed.

The clearest gap where technology can help is with head injury, both as an immediate way of dealing with an in-competition incident and in future-proofing athletes from the range of issues increasingly associated with head trauma. While this is the most pressing welfare consideration, it isn’t the only one; NGBs need to be seen to be proactively taking preventative steps on matters such as child safety, doping and mental health.

  • Fan engagement‘putting fans front and centre of the sports experience’ is a well-worn phrase, but it’s something brands remain committed to. The challenge is that as fans become ever-more sophisticated, engagement solutions need to match this. This is where AR and business analytics will continue to have an impact and, while there are some interesting activations using VR, it is highly unlikely to see widespread adoption any time soon.
  • Video and story-tellingfrom the NBA’s Rapid Replay to the ability for all broadcasters to snip and upload action socially in seconds, video has lost none of its power. Over the past few years, the trend was to try and get ever-shorter but, more recently, people are waking up to the fact that sports fans (even Millennials) are engaged by a story, regardless of duration. In other words, tell a tale well and the audience will stay with you. The tech that enables this will continue to flourish.

These are what we believe to be of significance in 2018. Sports innovation may be a speedboat, but the sector tends to be more of a super tanker, so while topics like cryptocurrency, blockchain and AI will doubtless be regular subjects of editorial, as things stand, we can’t see them affecting the sector meaningfully in the next 12 months.