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At Large: Craft beer at Spurs, streamlined shopping and going offline… industry trends of 2019

SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly profiles the trends intersecting sport, technology and culture that look set to define the year.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Craft beer at Spurs, streamlined shopping and going offline… industry trends of 2019

Predictions about the future are about getting the spirit right, rather than the detail.

After all, 2019 is the year of Blade Runner, that dystopian vision of a not-too-distant future in which Harrison Ford either hunted down rogue androids or was one or both, depending on when Ridley Scott stopped editing. And while we may not have flying cars or replicants – we think – we do have private space travel, urban pollution, and soul-crushing dissociation to enjoy if we so choose.

It all sets itself up nicely for a preview of a year in which our relationship with technology whirs on through pronounced upheaval, with innovation and behavioural change in a rapid cycle of influence and reinforcement. By this advanced stage in January, though, it’s hard not to think the best takes have been taken.

We’ve reached transformation saturation. I’m sick of the sound of my own voice asking Alexa what will happen to user interface and search. Enough pieces exist about automation to help any self-respecting AI-powered journo-bot tap one out itself in nano-seconds.

I have more of these, but you get the point.  

Still, this correspondent won’t decline the chance to burn off a column with a high-concept round-up. There are plenty of other phenomena appearing at the intersection of sport, technology and culture to give the industry a lot to ponder in the months ahead. Here are just a handful.

Nostalgia

Yesterday is back and it’s better than ever. Take a break from your Friends marathon on Netflix, put Hootie & The Blowfish on Spotify and fire up the Super Nintendo Mini Classic: the 90s never ended but dial-up internet sure did. Digital communities are coalescing more and more around the ageing things they loved, sealing out anything new.

There’s always been nostalgia – not literally always, obviously, but near enough – and professional sport generates more than its fair share. Now everything is recorded and the digitisation of archives means that, increasingly, everything can be readily accessed as well. That in itself is a huge opportunity for those in the hunt for, say, shoulder programming for a sports OTT platform – yet there is also something more profound going on.

An extraordinary generation of athletes are ending their careers in far better shape than any of their predecessors. The veterans series and legends tournaments of sport tomorrow could look like the bombastic reunion tours of music today. To put it another way: you might not care about Floyd Mayweather’s rematch with Manny Pacquiao in 2019, but somebody will.

Experiences

At some stage this year – probably this year – Premier League high-flyers Tottenham Hotspur will move into a new stadium on the site of their old White Hart Lane home. As much as any venue in existence it will cater to a whole array of live experiences, with a welter of premium pitchside craft beer bars, a cheese room, and space for a boisterous safe-standing section.

Each year brings more ways of watching sport and as fans get used to choice on digital platforms they will come to expect it everywhere else. There is an economic dimension to observe, too, in the yawning financial chasm in many countries between wealthy boomers and their bust offspring.

Sporting bodies are always in pursuit of the younger dollar but it may increasingly be the older generation with the means and the appetite for premium, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. At the same time, younger tastes have tended towards local, earthy and authentic for some time. That remains something for sponsors and organisers to consider.

Supply chains

At the start of the year, Brazilian soccer club Gremio installed a vending machine for their jerseys at Salgado Filho International Airport in Porto Alegre. A 90-day trial may or may not prove anything but it does hint at how friction is being eased out of the merchandise sales process.

Through its dense network of partnerships, retail giant Fanatics has been bringing the ‘fast fashion’ disruption of the high street to sport in the past 18 months with the goal of making it ever easier for fans to buy bespoke licensed apparel at home and at venues. Then there is the convergence of digital and physical products, with Adidas releasing lines of hitherto ‘video game only’ Manchester United and Juventus shirts from the Fifa series late last year.

Throw all that into fully integrated live broadcast platforms – combining shopping, communication and even mobile ticketing through already-existing infrastructure – and it gets pretty easy to imagine a world in which fans are wearing what they see, faster.

Privacy

Up to this point, the 21st century has been all about sharing. You share your photos with family and friends, your opinions with total strangers, and your data with major corporations.

The first of those is as popular as ever but the latter two are being reassessed. GDPR in the EU and Facebook privacy scandals pretty much everywhere have made millions think again about how much of their personal information is circulating, while many younger users prefer private messaging on Snapchat and WhatsApp to broadcasting their lives like some needy millennial.

The best sports marketers will move from hoarding data to treating it sensitively, and building responsive anonymised profiles to map likely fan behaviour. Strong interactive content and features will still be fundamental but the context in which it is used is steadily changing.

Going offline

Mark this one down in your Bullet Journal: 2019 will be the year of the tech diet. Between warnings of notification addiction and the disturbance-busting guidance of Deep Work author Cal Newport, the movement to free us from digital shackles – at least for short periods at a time – has been gathering momentum for a while now.

Even basketball megastar Stephen Curry got in on the act in late 2018, fronting PDA pioneer Palm’s return with a distraction-free companion device to the smartphone.

If social media breaks and screen-free bedtimes do go mainstream this year, there might be a few worried exchanges between those who’ve spent the past decade creating rich digital media ecosystems. But no bother. A live event, an appointment to view, a shared social occasion, even a reason to do some exercise: sport should have the real world covered, too.