Long before a global pandemic changed the way we watched and cheered on our favorite teams, sports organizations realized building better connections with their fans is a critical success factor. With most fans not watching from inside a stadium, organizations needed to create an augmented at home experience that connected viewers to the physical experience.

Digital platforms paved the way for organizations to deepen engagement with their communities and attract new fans. For example, The Rugby Football Union (RFU), in collaboration with IBM iX, reimagined its digital properties to ensure its targeted rugby audience of more than 10 million can reach relevant content faster and in a more personalized way. Complete with interactive data-driven features, this refreshed digital experience enabled the RFU to have conversations with their community, meeting high expectations of a fan base seeking instant gratification of finding immediate information across any device.

With the absence of in-person fan experiences, COVID-19 created an opportunity for sports organizations to further embrace cloud-enabled digital platforms and apply artificial intelligence (AI) to build closer connections and keep fans engaged. Today, even as fans return to arenas, these digital experiences are more important than ever.

A new IBM Institute for Business Value survey of US adults highlights how COVID-19 has significantly changed consumer preferences when it comes to the sports fan experience. Two times more US adults surveyed report watching traditional sports on digital platforms during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic, and 55% of US adults surveyed are currently more likely to watch sports via digital platforms than live television.

Adapting to new fan expectations

Social distancing meant consumers spent more time consuming content via screens, and further elevated their expectations for access to quick and personalized information. They turned to their devices for contactless dining, shopping, banking and entertainment – and those habits are here to stay.

This means now more than ever, organizations need to design experiences with the user at the center of the picture. For sports organizations, this requires tapping into data analytics to get a 360 view of their fans and provide insights that help create meaningful, personalized experiences.

Today, this means meeting fans at the right digital channel at the right time. They want more access to information, whether watching digitally or attending the game in-person. The IBV survey found that 61% of US adults like to read recent stories and review data and statistics on the players ahead of, or during the event to be more informed when watching live sports events.

Data-driven interactions, powered by AI, can help extend the in-person experience while also engaging fans globally. In fact, 60% of US adults surveyed believe technologies like AI and cloud computing make sports more engaging to watch for fans.

When the US Open 2021 kicked off this week, fans were introduced to new innovations that use AI and the hybrid cloud to help enhance their experience and get closer to the action.  Through the 30 year partnership with the US Open, IBM designed and developed new fan experiences, including this year’s AI-enabled IBM Power Rankings with Watson and Match Insights with Watson to keep fans more informed about the players and matches with real-time rankings and insights on the USOpen.org website and mobile app. The US Open also introduced US Open Fantasy Tennis – the first-ever fantasy experience for the tennis Grand Slam – which will be infused with Match Insights to help fantasy players make informed selections of their fantasy roster.

A continuous focus on creating, iterating and optimizing fan experiences that integrate digital to deliver tailored, engaging content at the right time will be a necessity for the sports industry.

Designing experiences for now and the future

It’s become clear that sports fans want enriched, effortless experiences that augment what is happening in the arena. Over the past 18 months, sports organizations seized the opportunity to strengthen their connection with fans. As we emerge and return to live sport in-person, organizations will need to take those lessons learned even further, applying cloud technologies, data analytics and AI in new ways to deliver a smarter, seamless online experience that can evolve alongside the future needs of the sports fan – for those inside the stadium but more importantly those who are not.

Learn more about how to design digital consumer experiences that drive engagement

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