Sport and technology - time to embrace the data

Sport and Recreation Alliance Director, Andy Reed OBE, blogs about the uneasy relationship between sport organisations and technology, and why there's so much to gain for the sector by embracing it.

I have noticed as soon as we start talking about sport and technology at recent sports conferences we lose about half the audience. One of the reasons many of us get involved in sport is to avoid our growing dependence on technology and the digital age. So why should we be remotely interested in tech whilst enjoying our sport?

Personally I have always been an early adopter of new technologies since my first Psion organiser in 1989. I own a museum of early adopted technology which never quite lived up to the hype. So forgive me if I am enthusiastic about the positive impact tech will have on our sector.

For a start I guess most of us are ‘digital immigrants’ – we’ve come late to technology. Digital natives don’t distinguish – digital and tech are an integral part of their lives not an addition.

You only have to look at the statistics around use of Youtube, (16 year olds will spend up to 3 hours a day) and the number of times we all look at devices each day.

Sales of wearables are worth billions of pounds already but I am a firm believer that these are just a transition technology and that internables and digestables will be the next biggest thing in the next few years.

some textYet I am not too sure that we within sport have really grasped how to integrate these simple devices into the mainstream of our sports. We see them as a challenge because it allows a personalised training regime and enhancement of the Quantified Self.

If I am being honest my Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone and Myzone are used to build up a picture of my sport and physical activity and the amount of effort I am putting in mainly to be fit enough to still be playing rugby. The outcome is sport related. Not everybody using this technology is just trying to do 10000 steps.

But this is just the start. The current crop of wearables will start to look dated within the next couple of years. The Internet of Things or Everything (IOT/IOE) will increasingly start connecting our digital worlds. At the moment our digital devices might connect to one or two things but when our fridge, home, vending machine, transport systems and our phone and internables are all connected we as consumers will have unlimited opportunity to tweak our lifestyles and just as importantly we will be generating data that we can utilise if learn how. I can’t wait for the GP to call in advance to suggest I visit because there are signs from the live data they are receiving to suggest a check-up is needed.

What are the challenges when trying to embrace technology?

One of issues is that we are starting to understand the concept of Big Data. We know we can collect more data than at any time in our lives. But the maturity of the sector requires us to be smart about what we do with all of this data. Of course, the time of Active People ringing people on land lines to ask questions has long been dead. When I was phoned last year I wanted to give them all the exercise data I had collected myself. But of course there was no mechanism.

So the big challenge is going to be how we use the Big Data available and work in into smart data we can make sense of. And the key to this is how we as a sector step up and create an Open Data source that will allow our sector to catch up with retail, hospitality and tech companies. I spend much of my time at the Sports Think Tank trying to transfer knowledge form others sectors into sport and for the next year or so the decisions we make a sector around opening up our data will be crucial. When TfL opened up their data it led to the creation of hundreds of Apps. We already have about 40,000 sports apps on the market. Just think what they could do if we were all genuinely sharing our data. These entrepreneurs move at a pace I can only dream of seeing in large sports organisations. Many have set-up, tried and failed or succeeded before we have drawn up the specifications.

We're time poor, but data rich

At the moment it takes me 11 screens and about 3 minutes of clicking to get through to paying if I want to book a local badminton court (this is much improved since it now remembers my previous purchases saving about 3-4 screens and clicks). Yet within the next few years Futurologist, Patrick Dixon, expects the digital native to want to have achieved a purchase within 4-5 seconds of switching on their smart phone. We do it for Amazon 1-click purchases, yet it takes me three minutes plus, for something as simple as a badminton court. Some of the start-up companies I help support have recognised this and are working on solutions. OpenPlay will literally open up the booking and paying of sport within a few clicks on an App. If we don’t speed up embracing these start-ups we won’t be losing potential customers (i.e. players) to other sports but to other consumer activities.

For example, take some time to study E-gaming – watched and played by millions and worth $4x as much as NFL amongst under-25s in the US. I am sure you will shake your head in bemusement as we watch screaming crowds of fans filing 60,000 seater stadium watching people playing ‘computer games’. But this is a reality and a financially very successful sector. We need to understand the drive and passion hat e-gaming generates and how we learn from their techniques.

Technology has driven performance of our athletes – why not our participation work? We invest heavily in creating the 1% marginal gains in equipment. We need that replicated in the amateur experience.

Where do we start? For my money, it’s by aiming to be at the same level as the large consumer brands who already take data collection and analysis as a given. That is who we are competing against. I constantly monitor the latest technologies being implemented in the US for their fans experience both inside and outside stadium. It's almost impossible to keep up, as what was fantasy just a few years ago is already becoming mainstream.

The quantified-self, as recognised in our Fit for the Future work – makes the point that a key driver for wearables, self assessment and measurement is so that we can make those personal marginal gains. People are training and being active independently. As a sector, we can either throw our hands up and feel we have lost people, or we can see it as an opportunity to engage people in different ways, but still bring them together as part of a collective. People training solo, using an app for a marathon are pretty likely to run in and need an organised event in which to perform. They may be alone but we can use apps and technology to generate communities, even if they are online and virtual for much of the time. It does mean we may need to redefine what a ‘Club’ looks like but let's work out how to do that, not say it’s too difficult.

Being open with our data

Once we begin to collect smart data, the next thing we need to do is share it. It’s not good knowing we have spaces going in running clubs or spaces in team sports if we don’t share them to get people involved. In other markets like hotels, holidays and insurance the opening of data has created new markets to book online and search through various websites and apps.

adults using fitness trackersI am fortunate to work with a series of small start-up sports technology companies and what each of them impress upon me is their desire to change the market for sport and physical activity for the better. They are the disruptive innovators we need to nurture and encourage. They can build the apps and systems faster than we can create the tender specification. Let’s be honest building technology is not our skill. Let’s embrace the innovators and not see them as outsiders wanting to make money out of us.

A rising tide lifts all the boats and this is where I believe we need to improve – an issue highlighted in the sports strategy. But with a slightly top down model again!  This is my fear as I talk to many in the sector. We want to own our space and data in our silos. These disrupters show another way is possible if only we allowed ourselves to innovate and allow a little experimentation with trusting that innovation.

Quite rightly I am often asked the killer ‘So What?’ question. Yes, we can all be carried away by what the technology can do without first understanding how and when it will be used to enhance the sporting experience. Once we get on the field of play perhaps apart from performance measurement and capturing the experience there isn’t much more we should add. But surely digital needs to be involved in every part of the journey from pre-contemplation to maintenance. And it doesn’t always have to be the latest technology. Old fashioned Facebook , Twitter and blogs still have a vital role to play in creating communities. The blog, Too Fat to Run, has been hugely successful in reaching a specific target audience and creating a community.

I would urge us all to watch consumer and technology trends to see what is heading our way soon! And not just in the sports sector. Many tech companies are doing some of our job for us. The health and sports apps are being created despite us not because of us. Major players see there is value. UnderArmour were rumoured to have paid $700m for the MapMy suite of Apps with 120 million users. Our job is now to use the smart data that is available to push people gently into sport and recreation and make it easier for them to choose these activities.

Using technology and integrating digital into the DNA of sport is not an optional extra, it is paramount to our survival in an increasingly consumerist approach to life. During this month we will highlight the latest trends in this series at the Sport and Recreation Alliance.

 Lots of the technology that gets created and touted will not be appropriate and much will fail to make its desired impact. But we need to be constantly asking and testing and embrace the changes that are coming. If we make it too hard to get involved there are plenty of other sectors that can occupy our attention for time and money!

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