Microsoft is helping to transform the fan experience

Microsoft is helping to transform the fan experience

Sports organisations are using technology to personalise their offerings for the individual

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Sports broadcasting has been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic with many events cancelled and entire seasons thrown into disarray. Even now, as sports events start taking place again, fans are not able to attend and can only follow events through media coverage. However, whereas the cancellation of events caused significant losses for sports broadcasters and streaming providers, the return of sport via media brings back business and creates new opportunities that could revolutionise the fan experience. 

According to Rainer Kellerhals, managing director of media and communications EMEA for Microsoft, the future of sports coverage will involve far more personalisation of content for the individual fan.

“This starts with basic things like optimising the experience for consumption on different devices, from the 70-inch TV screen with surround sound to the 6-inch smartphone screen without audio,” he says. “And the fan experience is not just the video of the event – it’s the commentary, the stats, the inserts, the subtitling, the navigation and sharing options, the social viewing possibilities, the immersive experiences, and many more elements which together create an experience well beyond simply watching the sport.”

To help broadcasters take advantage of these new opportunities, Microsoft tools can support them in the delivery of content. By making use of the capabilities of Microsoft Azure, sports broadcasters can scale their online offerings much more easily. Azure-based streaming and customer delivery network solutions can be used to reach a large global audience while keeping costs under control, making use of the elasticity of the cloud. Content logistics and production solutions allow creative teams to access and edit content from anywhere, while virtual studio solutions can help to reduce production costs.

This also extends to the creation of content itself. For example, Microsoft Cognitive Services can provide indexing powered by artificial intelligence (AI), automatically detecting key moments in a sports event such as a penalty or a touchdown. These moments can then be used to quickly compile a compelling highlights package for broadcast. Personalizer, an API service that is part of Cognitive Services, can also be used to create personalised experiences for fans by helping client applications select the best single content item to show each user.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Dynamics 365 can help sports broadcasters and organisations gain audience insights and improve the fan experiences through targeted recommendations and personalisation options. These solutions can be used to drive increased revenue through better marketing and more efficient customer retention, as well as helping sports organisations to better manage their relationship with fans. 

Real Madrid, one of the most successful football clubs in the world, used the capabilities of Dynamics 365 and Azure to directly connect with its 450 million global supporters. The club engaged a Microsoft Services team to develop a fan engagement platform based on Microsoft Dynamic 365 and Power BI. If the user consents, it captures and stores every interaction with a supporter, such as mobile check-ins at the stadium, online fan profiles and merchandise purchases. The team has also developed an extended video platform hosted on Azure Media Services containing new and historical video content which uses the Azure Media player to present that content to fans. The solution is completed by a consumer app, created using the Microsoft .Net Framework with Microsoft Visual Studio 2013, which allows fans to virtually access the stadium and search data on all the club’s players. 

“The Microsoft Azure platform is helping us rebuild and reinterpret our business in a way that makes it possible for us and our fans to do things that used to be impossible,” said José Ángel Sánchez, CEO of Real Madrid. “It is really a complete disruption of the business model that football has had over the past 15 to 20 years.”

Greater amounts of data on fan interactions with content will allow it to be adapted specifically for the individual, as sports organisations and broadcasters get even greater insights into a fan’s preferences. 

“This might look different for fans following their favourite team in a single sport and for fans following multiple sports,” says Kellerhals. “For a single sport, fans will be interested in specific teams, players, athletes, or drivers, in specific events and scenes, and in specific related content like stats, interviews, commentaries, social media posts, and previous or even historic events. Fans following multiple sports may want assistance in keeping track of the major events in their areas of interest and will want to get the news about what’s happening in the sports they are following.”

Another sports organisation making use of Microsoft technologies to personalise their offerings for fans is the US National Basketball Association (NBA). With programming in 215 countries and territories in 47 languages, the NBA has established a major international presence with fans around the world. 

A recently agreed multi-year alliance saw Microsoft become the NBA’s official AI partner. Microsoft will now help the league in creating a new, direct-to-consumer platform on Microsoft Azure that will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to deliver personalised game broadcasts and other content offerings. The NBA’s array of data sources and extensive historical video archive will be presented to fans according to their preferences.  

New technology is also changing the experience for NBA fans inside the stadium, with the Miami Heat’s use of the Azure platform. The team has created customer profiles that compile information from interactions in the arena and digital touchpoints. These are then broken down into insights with Adobe Analytics using the power of Microsoft Azure. This allows the team to enable a range of personalised services, such as tickets that pop up on phones automatically when fans approach the stadium gate. 

“We are thrilled to serve as the official AI partner of the NBA,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, when the partnership was formed. “Together, we’ll bring fans closer to the game and players they love with new personalised experiences powered by Microsoft Azure.”

Partner perspectives
We asked key Microsoft partners about how they are making use of the latest technologies to help transform the fan experience. Below are extracts from their responses, which you can read in full from page 96 of the digital edition of the Summer 2020 issue of The Record.

Alexander Lefterov, CEO of Tiger Technology, says: “Creating this content requires hybrid workflows comprising specialised on-premises equipment and staff for live broadcast and post-production, and cloud for services, processing and online delivery.”

Carlo De Marchis, chief evangelist at Deltatre, says: “We’ve helped redefine the way the world consumes sport, film and TV by offering specialist innovations in over-the-top streaming, websites and apps, graphics, data, officiating systems, user experience and product design.”

Darren Lepke, head of video product management at Verizon Media, says: “Our first customer was Disney/ABC, but many content owners have since discovered how our platform removes the technical complexity of streaming without sacrificing quality or advanced features.”

This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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