Physical and digital meet again

It may be many months before live sports events return to the form they took before March 2020 but as 2021 progresses, crowds are making their steady return.

On 8th May, Mexican superstar Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez beat Billy Joe Saunders in front of 73,126 fans at the AT&T Stadium in Texas, setting an all-time attendance record for an indoor boxing match in the US and a Covid-era record for an indoor event anywhere. The world super-middleweight title bout was a reminder that in-person experiences will become central to the sports industry again.

The physical and digital overlap, post-pandemic

However, some trends that were accelerated by the pandemic will remain relevant even as public health restrictions are eventually lifted. Just as changes in business practices, education and consumption habits necessitated by lockdown measures – such as home and remote working, food deliveries and ecommerce – had been seeded in the years beforehand, so the changes in how fans interact with sport have been building over recent years.

Among those is the growing overlap between physical and digital events and activations. On 3rd October, the organisers of the London Marathon plan to welcome 50,000 runners to the start line in Blackheath. On the same day, another 50,000 will be taking part in the second Virtual London Marathon, completing 26.2 miles on their own routes in their own local areas. That follows an inaugural 37,966-person edition last year, arranged when the spread of coronavirus made mass participation events impossible, but physical-digital events have been on the agenda for some time.

The rise of connected fitness technology

Where esports has taken competitive video gaming from the digital world into physical arenas, connected fitness technology is doing the reverse. Paris 2024 will stage the first mass participation Olympic marathon and road cycling races, while there is also a concept in place to extend the public’s involvement through digital engagement and gaming. Remote training and competition are already being supported by companies like Zwift, which creates virtual running and cycling environments for elite athletes and committed amateurs to train or compete remotely on fixed equipment.

Zwift’s technology has been deployed at events like the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) Cycling Esports World Championships and 2020’s Virtual Tour de France, and will be the backbone of the UCI’s programme in the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) upcoming Olympic Virtual Series. Yet the capacity of these kind of solutions to act as a platform for hybrid competition is very much evident. Last year, Super League Triathlon staged single-arena contests using Zwift, changing its model by having the running and cycling stages held in place. That will allow for greater flexibility in hosting and presenting the sport in the future.

Companies can have their assets presented in both the physical and virtual space, with branding worn by athletes on stationary bikes, for example, reproduced on their graphical avatars. Sponsorship opportunities that blur the lines between physical and digital have been expanding for some time now, from branded augmented reality projections at venues and on social media platforms like Snapchat, to the in-game appearance of commercial partners – with some products uniquely showcased digitally in titles such as EA Sports Fifa and Madden NFL series.

Gaming's new role in the "real-world"

In the past couple of years, English League Two football club Stevenage Town have created a partnership with Burger King that allows Fifa players to win in-restaurant prizes by playing online. That led to considerable mutual exposure for the brand as Stevenage became one of the most popular teams in the game, with interest not just in the food offers but in overseas orders of replica shirts.

Those initiatives have now evolved into something even more compelling. In early May, EA Sports and Championship side Queens Park Rangers announced that an avatar of Kiyan Prince would now be playable in Fifa 21. Prince was a star of the QPR academy, and a highly regarded young member of his community, when he was stabbed to death breaking up a fight outside his school in 2006. He was 15.

Prince’s father, Dr Mark Prince, has since set up a knife crime awareness charity, the Kiyan Prince Foundation, whose name has been used for QPR’s home stadium at Loftus Road in west London since 2019. Dr Mark and the club were working on projects to commemorate what would have been Kiyan’s 30th birthday this year when the Fifa opportunity emerged. Players who encounter the in-game recreation of Prince will receive information about how to work against the threat of knife crime – with Fifa well placed to reach at-risk teenagers and young people – while they can also learn about ways to support the foundation’s work in the real world.