Emerging Technologies Enable Tech Firms to Keep Sports Fans Engaged

Athletes are being greeted by empty seats, but sports leagues around the world are using technology to ease the feeling of isolation for both players and fans.

By Ian Ransom, Contributor

Athletes around the world are being greeted by rows of empty seats as they return to their playing fields and courts in the time of COVID-19. But sport leagues are working to ease the feeling of isolation from their fans: Some are teaming up with tech firms to allow fans to remotely broadcast cheers into stadiums, while others are working with video game developers to virtually manufacture “atmosphere.”

Having a feel-good diversion is important for fans whose leisure options have been drastically reduced due to social distancing and home isolation. Providing that diversion is serious business for global sports, which has been hit hard by mandatory shutdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The global sports industry is estimated to be worth more than $500 billion per annum, with much of the revenue tied to broadcast fees and corporate sponsorship for elite competitions. Fan engagement is therefore crucial for broadcasters selling advertising and subscriptions, and for sponsors seeking maximum exposure for their brands.

Big Round of App-lause in Japan

The need to keep fans switched on while keeping them from stadiums has raised an unusual conundrum for sports teams accustomed to packing in spectators. The roar of the crowd is not just a thrilling feature of the stadium experience but also very much part of the theatre of live broadcasts. Recreating that atmosphere has been a challenge for sports in cities and countries under lockdown during COVID-19. Yet it is a challenge being met by innovation in sports-crazed countries like Japan, where fans would normally flock to see top flight soccer, baseball, and rugby unions.

Yamaha Corporation has produced a free app that allows fans to broadcast pre-set cheers to stadiums via smartphones from the comfort of their living rooms. Remote Cheerer app developers—who’ve worked on the technology for two years, long before the pandemic— initially saw the technology catering to people unable to get to stadiums due to work commitments, childcare, or health problems. However, COVID-19 provided a unique opportunity to fast-track testing and a rush to market. It was first deployed in May at an empty Shizuoka Stadium in Fukuroi City where 58 loudspeakers placed around the soccer pitch blasted fans’ remote applause. It was then tested in live match conditions at a J-League pre-season match on June 13 between second division side Jubilo Iwata and third tier team Azul Claro. Some 65,000 fans sent 1.9 million “taps” of pre-set cheering sounds and applause during the match, which was streamed by broadcaster DAZN.

“We were able to confirm stability of the app even with such large access numbers,” says Yuki Seto, group manager of the Remote Cheerer project. “The players also gave incredibly positive feedback, which gave us further confidence.”

“Ultimately, we want to enable fans at home and fans in packed stadiums to become one as they cheer together. Support is an important means of communication in entertainment.”

—Yuki Seto, group manager, Remote Cheerer project, Yamaha Corporation

The app has been used at nearly 90 events by Division 1, 2 and 3 teams in Japanese soccer, along with top flight baseball team Chiba Lotte Marines, which became the first professional sports team to deploy it for an official championship match in the country. The developers have ambitions of bringing the app to overseas markets and even the Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021. Furthermore, they do not see it fading out when fans return to stadiums without restrictions.

“Ultimately, we want to enable fans at home and fans in packed stadiums to become one as they cheer together,” adds Seto. “Support is an important means of communication in entertainment.”

Gaming the System in European Soccer

The desire to create atmosphere for home viewers watching sports is also driving the convergence between video game developers and traditional media companies. Broadcaster Sky Sports announced in June a tie-up with game developer EA Sports to provide crowd noise for its coverage of England’s Premier League matches at closed stadiums.

EA Sports, which produces the popular soccer video game FIFA, is also helping to produce crowd noises piped into coverage of Germany’s top-flight Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga soccer leagues. While the sounds are pre-recorded, there is nothing synthetic about their origins, with EA Sport having continuously updated their aural database with fresh cheers, chants, and songs from matches in Europe’s top leagues for decades.

“None of our audio is simulated—and there are no generic crowd sounds from sound libraries,” EA Sports FIFA audio artist Paul Boechler told British media.

“It’s all captured from live games, from fans themselves, and match [recordings] that we secure through our… league and broadcast partners.”

The technology allows for Sky’s sound editors to mix the audio feed on the fly, so that goals trigger ecstatic cheering while questionable referee decisions can generate a healthy bout of jeers. Not all fans are thrilled by the idea of piped-in cheering, so Sky Sports allows them to opt out by offering alternative platforms that air the games with the unfiltered sound—or quiet—of the empty stadium.

More Screen Time for Fans

The artifice of piped-in cheering is somewhat undermined by the visual reality of empty terraces at the stadiums, so sports have come up with creative ways to fill the seats. Some of the methods are decidedly low-tech, such as the cardboard cut-outs of fans used in Australian rugby league matches and mannequins propped up at South Korean baseball matches. Others, like dancing robots used at Japanese baseball games, employ more sophisticated technology, but may not bear much likeness to the average fan.

Danish soccer club AGF Aarhus offered a compromise of sorts for its first match of the resumption of the Scandinavian country’s top division Superliga in late May, having fans “present” at their home Ceres Park stadium by virtual means. Using the videoconferencing platform Zoom, fans watching the game at home were beamed onto big screens placed around the stadium, giving the players a clear and close-up reminder of their support base. The idea was inspired by a Danish TV show, which had taken performances from musical artists and combined it with fans singing along at home, the club said. At the game, families wearing club shirts and scarves were seen on the big screens cheering the teams from their living rooms. Fans pumped their fists when Aarhus grabbed a late equalizer as the game finished 1-1.

For AGF Aarhus CEO Jacob Nielsen, the Zoomed-in crowd was in keeping with the times. “The players loved that there was some kind of atmosphere,” he told CNN.

“Now it seems that we have to do without spectators for a while, so maybe we can inspire a similar initiative at other clubs that can also benefit from it.”