5G, The Sports Industry and COVID-19

Jessie Hood

Times are changing. Now more than ever, fans need constant digital connectivity, faster loading times and new applications. With the development and deployment of 5G earlier this year, has it really lived up to the hype and how has COVID-19 accelerated the need for 5G across all platforms? 

Research (launched by Vodafone in October 2019) reveals that more than three quarters of business leaders from sports organisations saw improvements in fan engagement and experiences, while also suggesting that 5G, more than any other technology, will drive and enable change. Released at the official opening of the Vodafone Business Lounge at the Ricoh Arena, (home of PTI client Wasps Sports) the research sought views of decision-makers within the UK sports industry. 76% confirmed that their organisation will use 5G as a platform for innovation, with 74% believing it will underpin efforts to meet rising fan expectations. 

5G can deliver ultrafast speeds, greater capacity and ultra-low latency. These qualities enable us to develop new applications, whilst transforming all industries and opening a wider range of entertainment options, including live streaming video, mixed reality experiences and real-time access to information. 5G has promised to transform the way we watch and play sport – which will be key following the repercussions of COVID-19. 

Broadcasting Loud & Clear 

Broadcasting is the most developed use case for 5G to date, with ready-made innovations driving efficiencies and unlocking a raft of creative options. 5G-enabled cameras eliminate the need to use cables, making it easier to cover sports that take place over a wide area. An example of this is when Fox Sports trialled 5G at the US Open (with Intel, AT&T, and Ericsson) allowing them to cover more of the course. Another example is BT Sport, who join football fans in the pub before the game, travel on the team bus, provide in-game footage, and post-match interviews using the same cameradelivering the full fan experience.  

It is known that traditional sports broadcasters are accustomed to having exclusive rights for broadcasting premium live sporting events. However, with the implementation of 5G there has been a large focus on innovation, increased high-speed internet connectivity and the impact of globalisation, which have contributed to the shift towards and growth of online streaming (Linklaters, 2020). The likes of online viewing platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Facebook and YouTube have brought a seismic change to the TV industry. Research by Ofcom suggested that almost half of UK households now have subscriptions with some of the most popular online-streaming providers. It can be debated that these online-streaming providers are not only competing with the more traditional sports broadcasters, they have also influenced the executives to innovate and adapt their existing broadcasting models through competition against rival platforms and/or partnership.  

Seamless Streaming 

5G can transform the broadcasting experience, allowing for higher quality and more reliable streams. Due to changing user habits and disruption of the traditional broadcast modelsthere has been a shift in coverage of live sports via online streaming providersOne example of this is Amazon’s purchase of exclusive broadcasting rights for 20 English Premier League (EPL) football matches in December 2019, with Boxing Day fixtures being broadcast by an online-streaming provider for the very first time. Research by Linklaters highlighted that in February, before the UK went into lockdown during the pandemic, the chief executive of the EPL, Richard Masters, announced that the EPL is intending to launch its own online-streaming service that will sell live games directly to fans. The so-called Premflixstreaming service, which is initially intended to be trialled overseas, would have the effect of removing traditional sports broadcasters from the fold and further disrupting the sports broadcasting industry” (Linklaters, 2020).  

This shift is particularly evident within the hospitality space, with pubs and sports bars now incorporating online-streaming of sports into their offerings to customers. In the UK, one example of this is the Premier Sports (which holds rights to broadcast various sports including PRO14 Rugby, Serie A football and Motorsports) who has partnered up with a digital marketing and commercial live streaming solution, thus demonstrating the prominence of OTT broadcasting especially now within the hospitality space (Linklaters,2020).  

In-Stadium Connectivity 

In stadium connectivity is crucial at sporting events. Fans commonly second screen at live events to access additional information, watch video highlights and post content on social media. Some sports organisations fear that spectators might stay at home if they are unable to connect when in a venue. Existing mobile and Wi-Fi networks lack the capacity for such densely populated environments, meaning venues and operators embrace 5G and its capabilities. The German FA plans to let fans view data insights, such as player performance, in real time using augmented reality5G will also impact the uptake of stadium apps, with increased ability for food and beverage ordering, interactive maps and in app merchandise click and collect to provide a seamless experience 

In conclusion, 5G has the potential to make the operation of major events far more efficient, with more reliable communications between various stakeholders, such as organisers, volunteers and operations teams. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics planned to use 5G for security purposesTraining of staff using ‘virtual arenas’ and the wider use of Digital Twins – digital representations of physical spaces – could be revolutionary for event preparations. Paired with seamless streaming, broadcasting and instadium connectivity, COVID-19 really has accelerated the development and implementation into sports businesses.  

References: 

https://www.5gradar.com/features/how-5g-will-revolutionise-sport 

https://www.linklaters.com/en/insights/blogs/sportinglinks/2020/july/sports-broadcasting-in-the-tech-era-recent-trends-exclusivity-and-covid-19-implications 

https://www.ericsson.com/en/networks/cases/5g-at-the-us-open 

https://www.sports-insight.co.uk/sports-trade-talk/5g-set-to-revolutionise-the-sports-industry 

https://www.telcotitans.com/btwatch/bt-sport-5g-could-breathe-new-life-into-grassroots/1751.article 

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/5g-in-sport/impact-on-sector/ 

https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/live-sport-crossroads-fan-engagement-post-covid-world/1689058 

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