Top five ways digital is enhancing sport

1. Event enhancement and engagement apps

These days there’s a danger, with all the great tech advances that allow us to squeeze every last drop out of sports event, of no-one actually going to them. Who (apart from that big fella with the tattoo that doesn’t wear a top) would rather stand in St James Park on a cold November night than sit on a comfy sofa with a couple of beers and Gary Neville for company? Thankfully, there’s a lot of sports events out there that are allowing technology to enhance attendance of the live event, rather than act as a substitute for it.

The British Open — ironically, a tournament that prohibited even the possession of a mobile phone up until last year — introduced a great app to bring ticket holders functionality that allows them to experience the up close, real life exhilaration of the golf and follow the event’s progress in as much detail as the television coverage provides. The app included an interactive course guide, player profiles, leader boards and even live BBC coverage on the go.

Hearts Football Club were recently the first football club in Britain to introduce a half time refreshment ordering service, so Edinburgh natives can cut down the queuing time for their steak pie and bottle of Tennents lager and avoid the risk of missing even a minute of the Scottish football action. The major stumbling block remains access to 3G at sports stadia — perhaps free wi-fi is going to be the next priority on oligarch and sheikh’s shopping lists?

2. Explosion of online betting

The sports betting market is now worth over £2bn, thanks, largely, to the new concept of ‘in-play’ betting, whereby bookmakers offer odds for punters to place bets on the final outcome during the actual games.

William Hill Mobile sports betting handle increased 145% in Q1, averaging £18.2m per week — well above its £15m target. Mobile now accounts for over one-third of total online wagers and William Hills CEO Ralph Topping has said the goal is to increase mobile’s share to 40% by the end of the year.

Digital enhancement isn’t just allowing bookmakers to offer online betting — it’s also opening up new cross-channel marketing opportunities. Paddy Power in particular are taking this opportunity and running with it. For some time now, they’ve been running television ads that incorporate ideas based on Facebook comments left on their page, effectively putting their consumers in charge and creating brand advocates and continued engagement in the process.

For the 2012 Ryder Cup in the US, Paddy Power took things a step further and invited European fans to tweet messages with the hashtag #goeurope, to ‘help a yank shank’. The messages of support (or banter) were then displayed over the golf course in skywriting. The campaign was genius in its cross-channel effectiveness, blending social engagement, outdoor and guerrilla marketing in one campaign. Not only did fans engage with the original request on Twitter, but the messages also received television coverage, becoming a topic of discussion on Sky Sports. Some of the players that saw the messages even used their own social media accounts to share them, further amplifying the campaign.

3. Social bringing fans and sports stars closer

Previously, only about 50,000 people could hurl abuse at Joey Barton; now, thanks to Twitter, millions can, and Joey can hurl it right back… in a French accent to boot (let’s just take a minute to remind ourselves of that cringe gold dust).

Professional athletes can do Q&A sessions with their fans in a spare 20 minutes while they wait for a flight. A tweeted picture of soon-to-be-released equipment and clothing can be as effective as a print ad worth millions.

It’s not just flogging trainers, though — digital is allowing sport to cross over into politics; look at the engagement around ‘Justice for the 96’, which was only accelerated by the likes of Barton’s lending their Twitter support.

4. Second and third screen enhancement to television viewing

The only place you used to see multiple screens showing sport was in the local Bill Hill’s, and you’d usually come out £20 down and stinking of fags. With the 2011 introduction of the god-like SkyGo, however, the average Joe could now watch multiple events across television, tablet and mobile, meaning you no longer had to choose between the third division playoffs and Aerobics Oz Style — you can have your cake and eat it.

The second and third screens capabilities have enabled more than just the ability to watch multiple events, though; they also mean you can get easier access to services that aim to increase your enjoyment and further participation with a sporting event. A number of apps have emerged that give extra stats, behind the scenes info and encourage social engagement around the event amongst fans. One such app is ‘Beyond the box’, which aggregates social content around your favourite American sports team into one stream (player accounts, team accounts, updates from sports news providers, etc.).

5. Data collection and visualisation for the professional and amateur sportsperson

Stats have come a long way in the street cred stakes since the days of Statto on Fantasy Football League; in the 21st century, data is cool, and even cooler if it’s visualised in a slick pie chart graph via an app. There’s a plethora of apps out there that track your achievements in your chosen sport or activity. Nike’s Fuel Band gathers data from users’ wrists and syncs with an iPhone app and an online community, leveraging the gamification of achievements and personal goal setting and positioning. Nike is basically encouraging humans to better themselves each day — not a bad objective.

Your golf prowess used to directly correlate with the number of balls hit at the range and the itchiness of your Pringle V-neck sweater; however, both professionals and amateurs can now use the power of technology to help facilitate improvement. Each of us now carries a video camera, GPS and accelerometer in our pockets, so for 69 pence we can analyse every shank in minute detail, and then share for posterity on our chosen social media platform, rather than just in the bar after the round’s finished. Apps like GolfShot use the quantified self concept to collect, visualise and share stats, whilst V1 allows professional quality video analysis and comparison with pro athletes.