The return of sport stimulated by a growing technological role
Conor McGregor’s fight against American Dustin Poirier in January did not go as planned for the Irishman. But it was the first time in nearly a year that the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts series, could accommodate fans in an arena.
About 2,000 spectators filtered into the 18,000-seat Etihad Arena on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi for the match, which McGregor lost by technical knockout. For Ali Al Shaiba, executive director of tourism and marketing at the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, the return of fans after the pandemic has been a relief, made possible by rigorous testing and keeping people at bay. Protective “bubbles”.
“We couldn’t sleep for a week going back and forth around the arena, checking every item,” he recalls. “No one slept. . . but it was amazing, it was worth not sleeping for a week.
While Abu Dhabi is used to hosting top-level sporting events, including Formula 1 car races, Al Shaiba says successfully staging the fight amid the pandemic has bolstered the references the city as a destination for elite sports.
All over the world, cities and sports are adapting to the challenges posed by Covid-19, often with new technologies playing a role in the comeback.
“The events sector has really been one of the most affected [by the pandemic]», Explains Tania Braga, heritage manager at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the games. But she believes the return of the sport will contribute to a broader economic recovery.
Marie Sallois-Dembreville, Director of Business Development and Sustainable Development at the IOC and member of the Executive Committee of the World Union of Olympic Cities, is convinced that cities always want to host events. “Everyone saw the difficulty of not having sports events or training and the [limitations] of that, ”she said. Sport can promote physical activity, mental health and contribute to gender equality, she adds.
The IOC is well aware of the challenges of a global event in a city in the midst of a pandemic. The Tokyo Olympics, delayed by a year, are set to begin in July, with heavy participation restrictions.
For multi-city tournaments, such as the delayed Euro 2020 football competition, vaccines and testing have kept fans returning in greater numbers, with 60,000 allowed to attend each of the last three matches in London.
And, as returning fans have discovered, the return of Covid-19 has accelerated the role of technology – changing the game day experience. Beyond the use of vaccine passports, digital tickets, and contactless payments, technology can also speed up queues and food orders. Industry executives, stadium designers and analysts say technology will continue to reshape the fan experience as venues become more connected via the internet.
Dan Jones, head of the sports business group at consulting firm Deloitte, says it’s hard to imagine fans wanting to step down from the convenience of digital ticketing. For teams, the appeal lies in the digital ticket data that gives them insight into who is attending events.
Teams and event organizers may also be able to take a share when tickets are resold among fans. In the future, banknotes could be issued on blockchain, the digital recording technology that powers cryptocurrencies, making each of them uniquely identifiable and allowing teams to monitor resale, according to Paul Lee, Global Head of Telecommunications Technology, Media and Research at Deloitte. The move to contactless payments in stadiums will also continue. “Over the past few decades, there has been this perception that digital is going to change everything,” he says. “The reality is that it makes things easier and better. “
Modern stadiums like Tottenham Hotspur, the London football team, now have wireless infrastructure so fans can stay connected and share their experiences on social media.
At the same time, clubs are starting to think about how best to engage audiences live and remotely in events, says Christopher Lee, managing director of architecture firm Populous – who worked on the Tottenham stadium. He predicts more experimentation with virtual and augmented reality.
“On TV you can get better angles, all the reruns, the commentary,” says Nick Tyrer, associate director at Pattern Architects, who worked on designs for the new stadium planned by rival Premier League team Everton.
“Part of our job is to make sure that the spectators who come to the ground have the best possible experience,” he explains. “These are better cameras, different sensors, we are designing for Spidercam, an aerial camera. . . drones will be one of the next potentials.
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Away from stadiums, cities are able to host a wider range of sporting events, argues Alejandro Agag, the Spanish motorsport businessman and former MEP. He says mass events will be more difficult to organize due to the restrictions, but expects the more stringent rules to ease.
In 2014, Agag launched Formula E, the series of electric cars, which it says will benefit if, as it predicts, the pandemic accelerates the transition to electric mobility as cities focus on sustainability.
Agag says interest in these technologies will also spur the growth of another of its interests: electric motor boat racing. Its E1 series, which will promote “sustainable personal watercraft,” is set to debut in 2023 and in June secured an undisclosed investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
“The big advantage over motor racing is the lack of the necessary large infrastructure, such as walls and fences,” says Agag. “For cities with water [rivers, lakes or sea] it will become a great option.