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At Large: How Facebook’s Libra is a sign of sport’s growing need to engage

Facebook’s cryptocurrency plans are an indication of how much the tech economy will depend on keeping users in the same commercial environment – a trend sport’s smartest operators will be giving their full attention.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: How Facebook’s Libra is a sign of sport’s growing need to engage

You’d think a project called Libra must be a sign of something. 

This week it emerged Facebook is leading 27 global companies, tech and payment giants among them, in the creation of a cryptocurrency by that name that can be spent using WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Launching in early 2020, Libra will be anchored to existing currencies but for organisations in sport, for now, it is what the scheme says about digital behaviour and strategy that is more pertinent than its effect on money markets.   

Early reaction has inevitably centred on how proper it is for a company with Facebook’s recent data security record to be involved in this. US Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters has advanced a moratorium on Facebook developing a cryptocurrency until the American authorities have a better idea what it’s up to. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has said: “Anything that works in this world will become instantly systemic and will have to be subject to the highest standards of regulation.”

Ultimately, a currency like Libra will only really change things once it is actually easier to use than money. As one unnamed British official told the BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones this week: “It’s not obvious why someone here would choose to hold Libra with some exchange rate risk, when they could use pounds.”

So at this stage, there’s more than a whiff of the Disney dollar to the whole enterprise. And that may just be how Libra works in the early days of its use: part novelty, and partly a way of generating weary 90s dads with a stack of Mickey Mouse ones to burn on Goofy hats.    

Because as much upside as there may be in the blockchain currency game over the decades to come, this may in the short term be more about engagement than a definitive financial play. Several of the  companies involved have empire-building ambitions of their own, with Uber moving from ridesharing to other modes of transport and delivery, and Spotify expanding beyond music into podcasts and other bits of voice programming.

Bang in everyone’s eyeline, meanwhile, are the activities of Chinese payment giants WeChat and Alipay. Both have become ubiquitous in the world’s most populous country – and prominent overseas through local partnerships – by offering convenient QR code interfaces that are accessible to those without traditional bank accounts. Their massive transactional platforms are now the basis for a ‘super-app’ experience, where the payment service is the point of entry rather than exit. Within Alipay, for example, users can order takeaway food, invest spare change and buy tickets to the cinema – or, indeed, Uefa Euro 2020. 

Facebook catalysed what is now known as the attention economy but, slowly, the quality of that attention is becoming materially significant. Mary Meeker’s influential annual Internet Trends Report, delivered at the Code Conference in Arizona last week, served notice of a change in priorities. For the first time, more than half the world’s population – 51 per cent – is online, but yearly growth in access has slowed to six per cent, suggesting that further expansion is dependent on major infrastructural intervention.

In other words, the digital audience that exists is the one you’ve got for now. But it is increasingly active: more than one in four American adults now say they are ‘almost constantly online’. Yet for almost the first time since the internet reached maturity, the value is not in a glance but a gaze. 

The entertainment space is already being organised to reflect that. There is the Netflix ecosystem, which has accelerated television’s keep-them-watching storytelling loop and is weaving in strands like interactivity. Amazon has done much the same to enhance its ecommerce universe through music and video, adding live sport to the mix. 

Then there is gaming. A huge chunk of Fortnite’s hundreds of millions of players use it as a way of sharing time and digital space. The autumn will bring the release of Dreams, one of the most ambitious world-building games ever conceived, providing the opportunity not just to play or build their own levels but to experiment with art and animation. 

The Google Stadia cloud gaming project will promise a massive global network of gamers and viewers when it launches in November. Indeed, gaming’s reboot of the online social business was underscored by the acquisition of early social network flameout Bebo, now in its new incarnation building infrastructure for shared viewing, by Amazon’s streaming service Twitch. 

All of this serves to further indicate how the business of sport will need to change the way it addresses fans. The old rights relationship – the one-off sale of access to a captive audience – will continue to decline in relevance over the next couple of cycles. The challenge is to create experiences that fans want to live inside of, online and offline, for longer periods of time. 

That way of thinking is influencing more and more of what sports businesses do, from the specialisation of OTT platforms to the development of new playing formats. It’s a mindset that gives rise to a range of fascinating possibilities. Next week, for example, the Secret Cinema-style Wimbledon Rematch 1980 experiment in interactive theatre will allow visitors to relive the year of Borg and McEnroe’s most famous encounter. And the sharpest rights holders will be alive to the opportunities that exist in combining online experiences with real-world participation, from developing robust communities to playing a role in the digitisation of personal healthcare.   

Whatever the currency, engagement will be paying the bills.