Digital fan experiences like the NFL’s ‘Watch Together’ synchronised livestream are reinventing the way in which consumers enjoy live sports content.

The absence of live sport throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt strongly by fans like me across the globe. From the pre-game rituals, half-time debrief with friends and the atmosphere within the stadium, fans have been missing out on the communal and experience-led aspect of a physical game.

In response to this, we’ve adapted our strategy and looked at new and innovative ways we can elevate the sports fan experience as well as focusing on the entertainment sector more broadly.

We’ve seen the already growing appetite for virtual event counterparts accelerate during the lockdown period. Our consumer research found that football fans in the UK are now three times more likely to find the prospect of augmented reality (AR) replays and stats exciting, with younger fans more likely to use these technologies in the near future.*

This demonstrates how fans are starting to see the value these technologies bring, and so will be more likely to continue using them to enhance the digital experience – even when live sporting events start-up again.

More broadly, the expectation for consumers is that most offline events will have some sort of digital twin and be augmented by tech in some way. We’re already starting to see this amongst the younger generation, with 83% of UK millennials claiming they expect their digital experiences and interactions with brands online to be seamless, innovative, and to enhance what’s happening in the real world.*

The convergence of online and offline

These sorts of insights have been integral in driving our strategy and the platforms we use moving forward – highlighting the importance of exploring the convergence of online and offline.

As part of this, it’s been important for us to consider two key streams: live events with virtual integrations and virtual events with live integrations. The former will be vital for sport as virtual elements can be incorporated to enhance the offline experience.

For example, better quality video streaming, immersive experiences and real-time virtual reality (VR) and AR overlays that will allow viewers to watch the game from multiple angles – including cameras on the players and referees, so that fans can get a point of view shot and feel more involved in the action.

COVID-19 has been instrumental in accelerating demand for these types of experiences. And technology can help to create communal experiences for viewers, even when they are unable to attend the physical venue to watch the game with friends and family under current lockdown restrictions.

As a result, everyone working within the sports industry – from production and distribution to branding and marketing – has had to adjust their strategy and adapt to bringing digital experiences to the forefront. Much of this technology was already in the pipeline but the global pandemic has accelerated plans due to the need to shift to digital overnight.

NFL partnership: ‘Watch Together’

One of the ways we helped to improve the digital fan experience within the sports industry was through our recent partnership with the NFL to launch ‘Watch Together’.

The new platform consists of a co-viewing experience that enables fans to video chat on their phones whilst watching live games in the Yahoo Sports App in the US. Watch Together for NFL Live on Yahoo Sports will give fans the ability to invite up to three family and friends to watch live local and primetime NFL games on their phones through a synchronised livestream, creating an interactive, virtual experience that lets viewers feel like they are watching the game together. 

On top of this, the new Yahoo Sports game centre experience offers fans the ability to see graphical replays of key NFL game plays in near real-time using its proprietary Next Gen Stats player tracking data. The NFL is the first launch partner for Watch Together, but it could easily be replicated across the whole sport sector and demonstrates the digital capabilities for consuming live events.

These viewing experiences will be game-changers moving forward, even post-pandemic, and will more intrinsically link the offline and online element of live events. This is an incredible opportunity for brands to test themselves. And marketers should be thinking about their engagement strategies now to establish themselves in this evolving world, taking hold of the unique digital opportunities that are arising. 

Supercharging the experience with 5G

This is also where 5G can make a real impact – supercharging the fan experience through rich, real-time and immersive experiences. It will enhance existing technologies and help to cater for the increased demand for online events, while also elevating offline experiences in the future.

For example, e-commerce, social interaction and video replays in between games are all currently available but can be heightened, personalised and delivered in real-time at scale through the connectivity that 5G will enable.

Brands can tap into these opportunities by thinking creatively about ways to bring together the online and offline elements in a meaningful way that will connect with consumers. For live sports – and indeed live entertainment events more broadly – we can expect interactive and immersive experiences to become the norm, with fans looking for new ways to watch the game from their homes.

Brands that do not adapt and help to drive these unique experiences risk being left behind as we hurtle towards a more digitised future.

*Research was undertaken by YouGov on behalf of Verizon Media between 6-10 March 2020. Methodology: 2,210 online interviews with a national representation of UK adults aged 18+