The future of sports promises a new era of opportunity for brands.

2020 saw professional sports brought to a standstill, with seasons interrupted and trophies hanging in the balance for months. But while sports have now resumed, nothing is the same. The ongoing challenge of combating the coronavirus pandemic continues to drive profound and rapid change in the world of sport.

Yet this disruption is also compelling the industry to rethink the way it delivers, pressing fast-forward on a host of category shifts that will unlock an exciting new era of opportunity for brands.

Back in the Game explores and unpacks these accelerations and opportunities, covering a host of themes from digital fan engagement, to esports, to emerging technologies, to brand purpose.

Highlights from the report include:

Fan Engagement 2.0

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All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur documentary series. Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

The pandemic will accelerate a new era of fan engagement, as rights holders and brands alike pivot to building better digital content and connections for their audiences. Authentic stories, raw unscripted footage and more personal content will bring fans closer to sports heroes, while new digital tools from watch parties to second screen platforms will put them right at the heart of the action.

Leveling Up to Esports

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Official Virtual Tour De France 2020. Courtesy of Zwift

2020 has pressed fast forward on the fusion of esports and traditional sports with the emergence of virtual tournaments and simulated sports. The latter is predicted to have the strongest growth potential of any sport over the next few years, according to PwC. Elements of these new hybrids are likely to stay with us long after the pandemic is over, providing active engagement and enriching experiences for fans. Future generations will hardly see any distinction. Already for young fans, whether digital or real-world, a game is just a game.

The 360 Athlete

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Lewis Hamilton x Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team Speedcat Pro. Courtesy of PUMA

Athletes are emerging as powerful brands and media platforms in their own right with a broader relevance that extends beyond sport into fashion, music, gaming, entrepreneurship and more. In harnessing social media, today’s breed of sports star is able to cultivate a much more authentic and holistically defined persona, offering richer and more diverse partnership opportunities.

Tech-Powered Sports

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Courtesy of Nexus Studios, Dallas Cowboys, AT&T and Samsung

Virtual sports are getting closer, offering enhanced viewing from unique vantage points, behind-the-scenes access and even VIP hospitality. Emerging technologies like extended reality coupled with the advent of 5G will power a host of thrilling, immersive experiences for viewers at home and in venues, from in-game performance facts and figures though to giant holographic augmented reality characters.

Back to Live

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Miami Dolphins Gameday Theatre by Budweiser. Courtesy of Miami Dolphins

Fans continue to miss out on attending live sports, but their absence is unlocking new opportunities for brands to reimagine game day, creating new traditions and experiences for fans viewing at a distance, wherever they may be. In the US, some clubs are designing distanced fan experiences that are helping to restore a much-needed sense of community. Looking further ahead, health and hygiene will play a much larger role in the live sports experience, delivering a sense of reassurance to fans as they gradually venture back to sports venues.

Sports for Good

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Marcus Rashford MBE, in conversation with users of the Evelyn Community Store in Deptford, London. Courtesy of FareShare

In a year when it has become abundantly clear that brands cannot sit on the sidelines when it comes to purpose and social justice, sports and athletes are emerging as a powerful force for positive change. From the NBA walkouts in protest at racial injustices in the US, to soccer player Marcus Rashford’s determined campaign against child food poverty in the UK, athletes are increasingly aware of the power they wield and are using it to force conversations on societal problems. We’re also seeing the emergence of planet-first sports, that combine sporting entertainment with environmental education and awareness.

These evolutions will put fans at the heart of sport, as a blend of physical and digital touchpoints offer always-on engagement. Further, sports and its stars will deepen their cultural relevance and influence, offering potent opportunities for collaboration.

Download the full report to discover more on what this new era of sport has in store for brands.

Main image: Deconstructed Ping Pong I, courtesy of James Day Photography