Although COVID-19 has posed major challenges for the sports business, a number of fundamental changes in sport, driven by changes in social values and technological progress, were emerging even before the pandemic. Here we venture a look into the future of sports and show what impact this may have on athletes, sports consumers, and managers.
Changing values and technological change before COVID-19
All the signs indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic will herald a dramatic restructuring of our economic and social order. However, none of today’s decision-makers are currently able to estimate what this reorganization will mean for sport. The only consensus is that COVID-19 will usher in a new normality. As elsewhere, there will be no return to “business as usual” in sport, either.
However, COVID-19 is not the only reason for the coming structural transformation. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, fundamental changes were apparent. On the one hand, an obvious shift in values was emerging in our society, which also led to new attitudes toward elite sport and major sporting events, such as hosting the Olympics in one’s own country. The resistance to the Olympic bids of Munich (winter 2022) and Hamburg (summer 2024) made it very clear that people are concerned about sustainability. In addition, the sporting behavior of the population is changing. Club loyalty and volunteering as key factors in organized sport are declining in importance. Individualized flexible sport offerings, on the other hand, are on the up.
Add to this the technologicalchange that has turned our world upside down in just a few years. Data is now also ubiquitous in sport. Few professional sports clubs today would want to do without their own data analysts. It is also noteworthy that digitization has now also become mainstream. Every recreational athlete can now track his or her own fitness data – and optimize his or her training – via wearables such as bracelets and watches. Further, automated cameras mean that even sixth-league soccer matches can be broadcast live via OTT platforms.
With all these changes already in train, COVID-19 simply acts as an accelerator. The pandemic has encouraged us all to question traditional ways of thinking (keyword: shift in values) and to take advantage of the new possibilities offered by digital technologies (keyword: technological change). That is why we should stop looking in the rear-view mirror and dare to look ahead. We should ask ourselves what sport could look like in 2030 and beyond, and what this means for athletes, consumers, and managers.
New categories of athletes
The athlete is at the heart of any sport. Without athletes, there would be no competitions, no teams, and no leagues. There would be no sports sponsors, and even large sports equipment suppliers would lose the basis of their business model. When we think of athletes in organized sport today, we usually distinguish between conventional and Paralympic athletes. There are also ongoing discussions about how we want to deal with eSports or other sports that are primarily performed cognitively. Driven by the shift in values and technological change, we at the Center for Sports and Management at WHU assume that at least five categories of athletes will emerge in the future:
- Conventional athlete: This is basically the athlete we know today. For conventional athletes, data-supported training will play an increasingly important role. Today’s technologies, such as the Footbonaut soccer simulator used by TSG Hoffenheim or BVB, are only the beginning. In 20 to 30 years, practicing with humanoid robots will become a realistic scenario.
- Technology-supported athlete: On the one hand, this is about the further development of today’s aids for Paralympic athletes, for example via robotic prostheses. On the other, so-called exoskeletons, i.e. robotic suits that support the wearer’s movements, can also provide a technological aid for conventional athletes. Today, exoskeletons are already in use in the military or rehabilitation sector.
- Robotic athlete: In this category, the athlete is a robot with humanoid characteristics. The robot is controlled either by human action (e.g. via vision-based systems) or completely autonomously (e.g. via artificial intelligence). In 2017, more than 700 robots from 18 countries competed against each other in RoboGames, including soccer, basketball, weightlifting, obstacle courses, and field hockey.
- Mental athlete: Athletes in this category compete in mental sports such as chess or eSports. These disciplines are primarily characterized by cognitive skills such as perception and reaction speed. New achievements in brain research could lead to completely new competitions in the future in cognitive disciplines that are still unknown today.
- Virtual athlete: Holograms can create virtual athletes that are controlled by algorithms and used in new virtual sports. The human skills required for these new sports will be different from what we know today. This will create a whole new competition – a competition between software developers and engineers.
The sports consumer of the future
The most powerful player in sport remains the consumer. New concepts must therefore always meet the needs of sports consumers. No technology will succeed if it is not in demand by the consumer. In a nutshell, there are two major changes we can observe:
- More direct co-determination rights in competition: An increasing desire of fans to have a say in important decisions is apparent – not least in soccer. Such a form of co-determination already exists in American football in the USA. In the fan-controlled Football League, the fans already decide on the logo, coaches, transfers, and the players signed. They can even determine the next move in real time via online voting. In the near future, they may also be able to become rights holders and receive shares of the revenues of their favorite clubs. This is made possible by the use of intelligent contracts, block chain solutions, and crypto currencies. In the distant future, it is at least technically conceivable that fans will not only be able to monitor an athlete’s performance but will be able to directly influence it via so-called nanobots. These are sand-grain-sized mini-robots in an athletes’ bloodstream. They can release additional power to the athlete by muscle stimulation – all virtually at the push of a button.
- A new virtual sports experience: Virtual reality will enable fans to follow their favorite sport from the best seats in the stadium and jump into different perspectives at will. For example, this year’s NBA playoffs could already be followed live from the edge of the field via video. In order to offer a more social experience to fans who live far away from the stadium, in future matches may be broadcast via virtual reality headsets in satellite stadiums. Looking even further ahead, virtual AR/VR rooms are conceivable in which amateurs can compete with their idols in training or competition in the form of holograms.
Future requirements for managers in the sports business
The changes described above that impact both athletes and sports consumers throw up many new questions that managers in the sports business are already facing today. These are the following:
- Which technologies will prevail? How do I decide which technology to invest in?
- What skills do I need to develop or purchase to assess the impact of new technological opportunities, such as humanoid robots or holograms for my business? How do I establish and evaluate how they are specifically used?
- How do I ensure the sustainability and innovation of my business model? How can I make my institution more resilient to crises?
- Which new sports and athlete categories should I keep an eye on? How do I ensure that I always have my finger on the pulse and don’t miss relevant developments?
- How will established leagues and competitions need to adapt to changing fan demands and new athlete categories? Which measures from the COVID-19 era will be retained in the future?
- How should major events like the Olympics be organized in the future? Will classic sports be replaced by new sports like eSports? Will events partly take only place virtually?
Of course, nobody has certain answers to the questions asked today. At the same time, we know at least that we are on the threshold of dramatic changes. COVID-19 has already taught us that the patterns for solving new challenges do not have to be in the past. So, let’s look ahead and track a course into the future of sports without spending too much time looking in the rear-view mirror. It is not a question of determining the exact probability of a future scenario occurring. Rather, the main issue is to stimulate a new discussion about the future. From our perspective, future-readiness means being prepared not just for one, but for a number of futures. Discussions about conceivable scenarios make it possible to have so-called “substitute experiences” that prepare us for future uncertainties.
Tips für practitioners
- Do not regard new technologies as a threat, but more as an opportunity for athletes, consumers, and managers in sports.
- Use a technology radar regularly to assess which technologies are experiencing leaps in development and which new applications are emerging in sports. That way you remain ready to identify opportunities.
- Tap into the power of external networks by cooperating with start-ups, universities, or companies from outside the industry to facilitate your own renewal.
- Place the fan at the center of all considerations. In the long term, only technologies that satisfy a genuine consumer demand will prevail.
- Last but not least: be sure to take the requisite time during your hectic everyday life. Engage regularly and intensively with possible future scenarios as this will prepare you for what is to come!
Professor Dr. 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.
Johannes Fühner is research assistant at the Center for Sports and Management (CSM) at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. His dissertation concerns diversification strategies in sports and the influence of new technologies. Before that, Johannes Fühner has been working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.