The digital future is here... Football, Covid-19 and digital

A Manchester United fan watches the match on his iPad outside the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images
A Manchester United fan watches the match on his iPad outside the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images


It took some time but it has now become the norm. It was not long ago that the Dutch were ridiculed by football purists when they first introduced trials for goal-line technology and, later, the video assistant referee. Today, both technologies have almost become a standard feature of league and international tournaments across the world.

Likewise, on the digital front, the “game of billions” was notoriously slow in adopting digital transformation, with the likes of Manchester United, for instance, creating a Twitter account long after many clubs had done so.

Circumstances have since changed drastically, and more so in the past few months.

Without a single match being played across the world for a prolonged period, the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis has forced the game to either create or elevate on currently existing mechanisms to help it to remain relevant, to remain in the hearts and minds of its supporters even when there’s no football being played.

In South Africa, the content gap created by the crisis saw a flurry of innovative measures being created, largely on “client-side” – the fans and a part of the media – and, to a lesser extent, on “agency” side – the federations, leagues and broadcasters.

Orlando Pirates were the exception, as they grabbed an opportunity to feature in a virtual international tournament featuring some of the leading football teams in the world, hosted by Leyton Orient FC – a UK Championship side based in London.

This was a branding masterstroke on the side of the Sea Robbers, as they effectively elevated their club brand globally without even leaving the country and/or breaking the bank.

These are the sorts of opportunities that digital presents to football clubs and it is up to clubs to pull in trained and creative talent who would be in a position to identify these opportunities and exploit them to the maximum.

In this context, it will therefore not be much of a surprise for a South African lad in a foreign country to be greeted by comments about the club from Orlando East, Soweto.

Through a mobile phone, anybody anywhere is in a position to become a media house by themselves
Thapelo Moloantoa

On client-side, football fans are now taking the power from the official broadcasters by creating, editing and disseminating content by themselves. In the absence of live match action, digital media tools have enabled fans to curate content and stream it live to fellow fans to view on mobile. This is what is known as the “second screen experience” in digital sports media.

Through a mobile phone, anybody anywhere is in a position to become a media house by themselves – they can create their content and stream it to YouTube Live, Instagram Live and Facebook Live, a development known as over the top (OTT) content in the sports digital world.

Among those channels that have enjoyed a massive following are Lux’s Book Reviews and Conversations, a partnership between PSL head of media Luxolo September and Global Media Content (Facebook and YouTube); The Assist by former Crystal Palace and Bafana Bafana midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi (Instagram Live); and the Football Show with TK, curated by veteran football journalist Thomas Kwenaite.

Lucas Radebe, still very much revered in England, was recently a part of a panel interview presented by Adidas and hosted by former Arsenal striker Ian Wright (YouTube).

The data generated from these OTT activities is critical for those seeking sponsorship during these rather extraordinary times.

The big clubs of Europe are now global brands and utilise their digital reach and engagement, among other factors, to lure sponsors in almost any part of the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Manchester City, for instance, produces daily content in 12 languages across all of its digital platforms.

I believe that popular brands such as Kaizer Chiefs, well known across sub-Saharan Africa, should now be looking at utilising their massive digital reach to leverage their brand awareness in African markets.

Data from research reports generated by the Germany-based Digital Sports Africa confirms that Amakhosi rank high up there with the Al Ahlys, the Zamaleks and ASEC Mimosas in terms of digital reach.

The question is: What is the impact of this data on the club’s marketing and sponsorship portfolios?

The game-changer in digital’s impact on football came about in December 2019 when Amazon broadcasted several English Premier League (EPL) matches exclusively via packages designed for and targeted at their online clients.

This was a taster of what is about to happen in future in terms of television broadcasting deals – the lifeline and major cash cow of the game across the world.

Future deals between leagues and broadcasters are going to be increasingly characterised by a scenario in which significant chunks of the broadcasted matches will be allocated exclusively to digital streaming entities and/or current television rights holders will incorporate match digital streaming within their programming.

The accelerated implementation of 5G mobile technology is going to result in a massive uptake of video content by sports followers, and this will see a further boom in the creation of OTT mobile-first content, driven by both the end-user and digital streaming rights holders such as Amazon.

Speaking to City Press for this column, Sean Hamil, co-director at the Sport Business Centre, Birkbeck College, University of London, affirms the above-mentioned notion when he says, “in theory the entry of digital media competitors into the sport broadcasting market represents a potential increase in demand.

It also introduces more uncertainty; a key driver of the old pay-per-view model was that it also provided a high degree of exclusivity to the winning rights’ purchasers. Perhaps one version of the future will see sports rights holders start to develop their own in-house OTT broadcast distribution platforms.”

So, in this scenario, Arsenal as a club would develop their in-house version of the massively popular Arsenal Fan TV, and Mamelodi Sundowns would create their version of the well-known Masandawana Fan Vlog.

Newly appointed SABC head of sports Gary Rathbone concurs with the premise set out in this column. “What has also become clear is that the current Covid-19 pandemic has created a significant surge in people engaging with the digital/OTT space, as they suddenly find themselves with the time and need to explore this new medium, helped by a push from governments and service providers to improve access to OTT resources to create a wider reach in this time of crisis.”

It could be that we will look back on 2020 as the time when the final push to reach that cross-over point was made.

And, with many of the major rights owners, such as the EPL, UEFA, Bundesliga, F1 and NBA already lining up streaming services for the forthcoming rights cycles, it seems they are going to find an audience more than ready for this.

I would like to say that, to my mind, what this will mean is that within the next few years live sports content streamed to sports fans over the world via apps and the like will become the norm. Surely, what we used to refer to as the mobile phone is soon set to become the set-top-box of the future.

The digital future is here.

Moloantoa is a London-based digital media consultant and head of Global Media Content


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