Genius Sports is making its mark in unchartered territory. Perhaps more widely known for its partnerships across Europe and the US, where the global sports technology firm counts the likes of Major League Baseball (MLB), German soccer’s Bundesliga and the PGA Tour among its extensive suite of data and integrity partners, the company has spent the past five years ramping up its efforts in Asia, where more and more sporting organisations are waking up to the benefits of developing a dedicated digital strategy.
“There is a real emphasis amongst Asian sports to invest and transform their digital infrastructures,” says Thomas Klingebiel, Genius Sports’ commercial director for Asia. “While this isn’t unique to Asia, it is happening at a rapid rate with leagues and federations looking to improve everything from their fan-facing platforms to the technology that runs their day-to-day operations.”
A brief look at changing consumption patterns - generally defined by a shift from linear TV to mobile and online - makes it straightforward enough to understand why.
According to a recent report from digital soccer platform Copa90, 79 per cent of fans under the age of 25 are using a second screen whilst watching soccer - a figure that is only likely to be intensified across Asia, where Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia account for three of the top four countries in the world for time spent per day on the internet. Those same three sports-fanatical nations also feature in the top four for time spent on social media, with users in the Philippines clocking up a staggering average of three hours and 57 minutes every day.
Combine those figures with the findings of a recent McKinsey study, which revealed that 60 per cent of millennial sports fans check scores and sports news via social media platforms, and it is hardly surprising that Asian sports are evolving their engagement strategies to reach their followers across multiple platforms before, during and after games.
“Recently, there has been a noticeable shift where Asian sports are both taking control of their data and enhancing their digital strategies,” begins Steven Burton, managing director of Genius Sports. “Traditional engagement platforms such as television are still vitally important to sports’ global reach and reputation, but in order to build a loyal audience with significant commercial potential and opportunities, Asian sports can’t afford to neglect digital.
Thomas Klingebiel, Genius Sports' commercial director for Asia
“Last year saw a five per cent increase in the number of internet users, a 14 per cent rise in active social media users and eight per cent more mobile connections across Asia. These key components must be at the heart of Asian sports’ digital strategies, enabling them to reach fans on the go, with split-second engaging content across multiple platforms.”
Put simply, fans are no longer satisfied by watching sports - they now crave a plentiful supply of immediately available complementary data which can help them form opinions that they can then plaster all over Twitter, Facebook, or whatever other platform on which they think their followers will listen.
Watching the polished broadcasts and browsing the sophisticated mobile apps of English soccer’s Premier League and North America’s National Basketball Association (NBA), which are rife with plush graphics and stats covering just about everything the fan can think of, it’s easy to take for granted the systems that are processing such a rich feed of data. It’s even easier to ignore that this is what a lot of lesser known Asian sports leagues are up against.
Traditional engagement platforms such as television are still vitally important to sports’ global reach and reputation, but in order to build a loyal audience with significant commercial potential and opportunities, Asian sports can’t afford to neglect digital.
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Asian federations across the board are playing catch-up in this space, and Klingebiel points out that there are various examples of competitions and organising bodies at the top of Asian sport that have already implemented advanced strategies that are helping them rival some of the pioneering leagues across the globe.
“In terms of the top-tier sports and competitions,” he says, “I would say they are keeping pace with some of the most innovative leagues in the world, attracting large audiences both domestically and on an international scale. Obviously the better the sport is run, the better the experience and content it provides, the more the fans engage and the bigger the audience reach is.”
Where there is still work to be done, he adds, is within the lower echelons of competition, where leagues and federations aren’t necessarily alert to the benefits that having control over their official data can provide, and indeed the type of technology solutions which could be at their disposal.
“I think the gap here potentially comes with the second or third tier of competitions, but this isn’t unique to Asia and the potential is still very exciting,” he says.
“In terms of the role data is playing in the development of Asian sports,” Klingebiel adds, “I see it coming from several pretty distinct areas. One is from the administrative and management side, where control over data can help to modernise and enhance the efficiency of a sport’s operations. With the right technology infrastructure, data can save sports valuable time and cost, informing their decisions while automating key processes.”
Genius Sports has been providing the AFC with a competition management system since 2016
Indeed, this is one of the very advantages that Genius Sports’ technology solutions are already providing, and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the governing body for soccer in the region, can vouch for that.
The AFC joined forces with Genius Sports in November 2016 to provide its member associations with a competition management system (CMS) which allows them to control and manage all competition formats including league, knockout and round-robin tournaments.
The service has already been adopted by a growing number of the AFC’s members, including the associations of Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, with each benefiting from Genius Sports’ expertise through training, development, product workshops and regular support to ensure they get the most out of the data-driven technology.
“In general, like other areas of development of our member associations, we see this as a vital component to ensuring they are operating as modern sports organisations,” says Stuart Larman, director of member association development for the AFC. “The AFC sees this as a crucial area and as in all major confederations there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Therefore, with a number of regional and country-specific workshops we have helped member associations grow their digital output and have been willing to share content as member associations look to begin their own digital journey. Every country has also been provided with specific reports which highlight their challenges and opportunities.”
As well as enabling member associations to generate their own competition schedules within the space of a day, the AFC’s CMS also gives organisations which might not have the necessary infrastructure the means to generate team and player profiles, create and distribute pre-game information to media partners and collate official records to create historic statistics that can be shared and consequently used to engage fans.
If nothing else, the partnership has been a revolutionary one for the AFC, which is now equipped with a digital strategy which Klingebiel believes is one of the most refined in Asian sports.
“The AFC is driving the digital transformation of their sport across their 47 member associations,” he states. “Our competition management system enables member associations to dispose of inefficient or paper-based systems in return for advanced software that enables leagues to create a season-long schedule in a matter of hours.
“The AFC is enabling their member associations to control their official data to create historic archives on their competitions, integrate their statistics and information across other platforms while streamlining their operations.”
Genius Sports recently opened a Singapore office to manage its operations in Asia
Beyond that, though, modernising and enhancing the efficiency of a sport’s day-to-day activities is just one area that Klingebiel sees data helping to transform Asian sports. The next step, he says, is focused on reaching those stats-hungry fans who are more likely to engage with a sport when large amounts of data-fuelled content are being made available to them on a regular basis.
“The second part is around enhancing the fan experience,” Klingebiel asserts. “Analysis is the second most popular form of content amongst fans and statistics are obviously a key part of this. Whether that’s highlighting recent or historic form to distributing live updates or providing detailed team and player stats after each game, fans want engaging content that changes quickly and can be consumed on a second screen.”
One example which Klingebiel is quick to point to is the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA), one of the largest and longest-running basketball leagues in Asia, which first partnered with Genius Sports in 2014 with a key focus on enhancing its fan engagement strategy.
Using FIBA LiveStats, a real-time courtside stats collection tool developed by Genius Sports alongside basketball’s global governing body, the PBA is now able to distribute those accumulated stats and data sets across its in-stadia scoreboards and reports, as well as on its website, mobile app, broadcasts and fantasy sports site.
“The PBA placed a real emphasis on taking control of their official data and building an ecosystem of digital products to meet their fans’ needs and professionalise their appearance in that way,” explains Klingebiel. “If we look at some of the results, they have been very impressive. Since 2014, their GameCentres have received over 25 million page views, accounting for around 15 per cent of the total sessions in that period from our global network of over 200 basketball leagues and federations.”
Analysis is the second most popular form of content amongst fans and statistics are obviously a key part of this. Whether that’s highlighting recent or historic form to distributing live updates or providing detailed team and player stats after each game, fans want engaging content that changes quickly and can be consumed on a second screen.
The end game of all this, though, isn’t only about helping sporting organisations such as the AFC and the PBA to grow their global fanbase, but to accelerate their financial growth as well. As Klingebiel explains, a wide-reaching digital portfolio is likely to attract additional partners, ultimately providing further opportunities to monetise.
“Taking control of data can be a major revenue driver,” he says. “Putting more content out there, engaging fans on a deeper level and increasing your global audience will all directly bolster a sport’s bottom line. With a loyal and engaged audience, sports can benefit from increased sponsorship, and advertising opportunities can be created while their data can also be commercialised through media and third-party partners.”
And therein lies the challenge for Asian sports: in keeping a global audience engaged. They aren’t merely competing for fans’ attention with one another, but with an international sporting community which is recognising the need to grow its profile in Asia.
The PBA's GameCentres have received over 25 million page views since 2014
Soccer clubs and leagues around the world – namely the Premier League and the Bundesliga, in particular - have long infiltrated the region, setting up offices and taking pre-season tours to a continent where they know fans are watching overseas competitions just as much as they tune into domestic ones.
And that attention is only going to deepen as the eyes of the sporting world continue to shift towards Asia which, having already staged the last Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, is set to welcome the next two editions of the event. Meanwhile, Japan is gearing up to host next year’s Rugby World Cup, while the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be taking place in China.
In short, the Asian sports market only looks set to become more crowded, meaning now is not the time for federations, leagues and competitions in the region to stand still.
“If you look at a country like China, it has an officially formulated plan by the government to become a proper sports economy, driving participation rates and the quality of the competitions,” says Klingebiel. “The Chinese Super League (CSL) is partly a reflection of that because similarly to other countries, the domestic league – at least prior to all this investment – wasn’t globally known.
Against this increasingly competitive landscape, Asian sports have to have a unique and dynamic digital strategy that puts the fans at the heart of their approach.
“The Indonesian football league isn’t fighting for eyeballs against Indonesian basketball or Indonesian badminton, they’re fighting for visibility against the English Premier League. The CSL isn’t fighting for market share against the Hong Kong Premier League or the Chinese Basketball League, they’re fighting for eyeballs against La Liga and the Bundesliga.
“Against this increasingly competitive landscape, Asian sports have to have a unique and dynamic digital strategy that puts the fans at the heart of their approach.”
Clearly, then, despite all the good work that is already happening within Asian sports, there remains plenty to be done. In the immediate future, Genius Sports will be assisting the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI), which it partnered with in May this year to provide a management platform in time for the start of the new season in March.
That particular deal will see the company provide live data collection software and real-time distribution across a fully hosted mobile app and automated social media publishing service, as well as implementing its integrity services to help protect Indonesian soccer from match-fixing.
Genius Sports recently partnered with the Football Association of Indonesia
Looking even further ahead, though, this seems to be just the beginning of Genius Sports’ activities in Asia, especially given the new era the organisation is about to embark upon. The company’s recent acquisition by private equity firm Apax Partners, a well-known investor in fast-growth technology firms, will help to spearhead its global expansion, and Burton confirms that Asia remains at the heart of those plans.
“This is a hugely exciting time for our business,” he says. “Apax is one of the largest private equity firms in the world with an incredible track-record of growing technology businesses.
“International expansion will naturally be high on our agenda going forward and Asia is a big part of that. We recently opened a new office in Singapore and the acquisition will accelerate our growth and expansion across Asia, allowing us to broaden our product set and enhance the support we provide to our existing partners while also enabling us to undertake more long-term digital transformation projects with sports.”
On top of that, Burton reveals that Apax’s investment will enable Genius Sports to grow “both organically and through strategic acquisitions”. The company intends to have a specific focus on partners that can develop its offering to sports leagues and federations, whether that’s across coaching and analytics, enhancing the fan experience or optimising their approach to digital, which he ultimately predicts will be crucial to the Asian sports industry over the coming years.
“Digital transformation will dominate the Asian technology sector both in and out of sport,” says Burton. “A recent IDC and Microsoft study predicted that approximately 60 per cent of Asia Pacific’s GDP will be derived from digital products by 2021, adding an estimated US$1.16 trillion.
“For sport, we will see more leagues and federations undertaking long-term digital transformations that give them control over their data and enhance everything from performance levels on the pitch to the efficiency with which they run competitions or register participants. And of course, the fan will continue to be at the heart of Asia’s focus on digital.”