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COVID-19 Set to Accelerate Technological Innovation in European Winter Sports

Experts forecast the impact of COVID-19 on the future of the industry

Sascha L. Schmidt - February 25, 2021

Key findings for the industry

By 2025, the European winter sports industry will undergo a technological revolution. This forecast can be derived from the new Delphi study "The Impact of Technology on the Future of Winter Sports, in times of COVID-19", in which 53 winter sports experts from varying fields participated. The Europe-wide study found that, as a result of COVID-19, more than half of the participants (56 %) expect the winter sports industry to change in the long term.

The comprehensive report with insights and forecasts from winter sports insiders from 15 European countries is the result of the second Delphi winter sports trend study, following "The Future of Winter Sports" conducted in 2020. The results highlight Corona-related challenges of the industry as well as possibilities and opportunities that might improve the winter sports experience in the future. As a result of the pandemic, some developments have now gained significant momentum.

Contactless winter enjoyment by 2025

The operation of the winter sports industry has been altered significantly due to Corona. This is forcing many lift operators to rethink how they function on the slopes. Three-quarters of experts believe contactless technologies will continue to develop within the industry. NFC – near field communication for the wirelessexchange of data – could enable completely contactless payments, catering, ski rentals, or even hotel check-ins by 2025. In the previous year, only 62 percent of the experts surveyed thought this technological development was likely.

Christian Rau, Country Manager Mastercard Austria, comments on the current state of technology, remarking: "As a long-standing partner of the Hahnenkamm races, we continuously invest in state-of-the-art innovations for winter sports. In 2020, we introduced the Ski2Pay hybrid card for the first time, which combines both payment and ski pass on a contactless, wearable device. In addition, we are working at full speed to ensure that access to hotels and local transport can also be integrated into this card. These approaches not only promote convenience; in view of the current situation, they also make a significant contribution to the safety of winter sports enthusiasts." Last year, the contactless hybrid card was available for use in more than 100 ski resorts around the world.

Tech boost contributes to industry recovery

Half of industry experts predict that ski tourism will not return to pre-crisis levels before 2023. The key driver for this better-than-anticipated forecast is the rapidly increasing use of technology in winter sports. Recent findings highlight the global digitization surge due to the pandemic: for example, the expected increase in digitization levels has been reduced from five years to eight weeks. This global trend is reflected within the confines of European winter sports, and the experts surveyed also expect a Corona-induced innovation boost for the industry.

The growing digitization is rather surprising for winter sports, because skiers and boarders alike tend to seek a certain connection with nature and time away from their digitized everyday lives through sport. But by 2025, industry experts predict that the pandemic will have a significant technological impact on three areas of skiing: Training, preparation, and recovery planning for athletes (54 %), overall convenience for professional and amateur skiers (56 %), and optimization of ski lift technology to minimize the spread of viruses (41 %).

Smart gadgets and improved streaming on the horizon

Technological achievements will not only improve the experience on the slopes in the coming years. Several equipment manufacturers have set themselves the goal of researching and developing new potential innovations. By 2025, cutting-edge materials will be among the biggest developments in slope-related equipment. To that end, everything from new types of insulation materials for warmer and lighter skiwear to intelligent protective equipment (smart protection) with GPS trackers and biometric data are already in the pipeline. However, 73 percent of experts expect the biggest change by 2025 to be that of improved fan experience. This includes, for example, digital streaming of ski events that provides fans with detailed information on athletes' performance in real time.

Contactless technologies will also soon be standard in the winter sports industry, according to the overwhelming assessment of the experts. In addition, the trend appears to be shifting toward smart, personalized experiences through technology, such as head-up displays in helmets. Information superimposed in real time provides skiers with everything from customized route plans tailored to the user's skills and preferences to sensors in ski boots that help riders improve their technique. There will be numerous innovations in these areas in the coming years that will provide skiers with an even safer and better experience than ever before.

Helmut Holzer, Director of Anticipation and Advanced Research at Atomic Ski, explains, "We still see potential in integrated measurement systems directly on the equipment, especially for professional athletes. Feedback from athletes such as 'something is still missing here' or 'it's unstable there' could be verified by this. Sometimes it is even difficult to put the behavior of the equipment into words at all. There, too, we hope to gain insights through integrated measurement systems. In the amateur sector, it's a lot about individualization. Finding the right product for each individual athlete – for example, with different performance levels in the same product – is a challenge. Finally, sustainability will become even more important. More climate-friendly materials will increase, on the one hand to meet the demand for them, and on the other hand to comply with regulatory requirements, including those stemming from the EU."

Truly virtual: potential for eSports

Another area of significant technological innovation that experts predict will emerge by 2025 is eSports. Virtual sports have enjoyed rapidly growing popularity in 2020 since face-to-face events were canceled or postponed due to COVID-19. However, winter sports are not yet known for their virtual counterpart, apart from cult games like SSX Tricky. Just over a third of experts believe that by 2025, eSports will open virtual slopes to people all over the world - including in places where skiing is not naturally possible. In addition, 43 percent of industry experts estimate that virtual simulations will have a significant impact on accessibility, meaning people with disabilities could thereby experience the sport virtually.

Key findings for the industry

  • The winter sports industry will experience a technological revolution by 2025. COVID-19 will change winter sports in the long term and significantly accelerate developments that have already been initiated.
  • All transactions during the winter sports experience could be completely contactless in the future. Payments, the purchase of food, ski rentals or even hotel check-ins are expected to be possible completely without contact by 2025.
  • Equipment for winter sports enthusiasts is becoming safer and more comfortable: new types of insulation materials for warmer and lighter ski clothing, head-up displays in helmets, and smart protection with GPS trackers and skiers' biometric data will be available in the foreseeable future.
  • Winter sports are becoming more digital: improved streaming services with live information and virtual downhill skiing will further expand the offer for winter sports fans.

Literature reference and methodology

The study was conducted in an anonymous Delphi format by the WHU Center for Sports and Management. Delphi studies are scientific research methods that solicit the opinions of a group of experts in a repetitive survey process. The selected experts assess pre-formulated future propositions and evaluate them in terms of their likelihood to occur, their impact, and subsequently how desirable they are.

Participants included 53 international winter sports experts between the ages of 25 and 65, including athletes, officials, media representatives, academics, resort managers and sports technology executives. The Delphi study was conducted by Prof. Dr. Sascha L. Schmidt, Nicolas Frevel, Sebastian Flegr and Daniel Beiderbeck of the Center for Sports and Management at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. The studies from this and last year were commissioned by Mastercard.

  • Schmidt, S. L./Frevel, N./Flegr, S./Beiderbeck, D. (2021): The Impact of Technology on the Future of Winter Sports, in times of COVID-19.

Co-author of the study

Professor Sascha L. Schmidt

Sascha L. Schmidt is Director of the Center for Sports and Management and Professor for Sports and Management at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. He is also the Academic Director of SPOAC - Sports Business Academy by WHU. In addition, he is a member of the Digital Initiative at Harvard Business School (HBS), affiliated to the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard (LISH) and a Research Associate at Emlyon Business School Asia. Sascha is co-author of various sports related HBS case studies and one of the initiators and Senior Lecturer of the MIT Sports Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. His research and writings have focused on growth and diversification strategies as well as future preparedness in professional sports.

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