With January behind us, it’s a good time to take one last look back at 2021, to remember some of our favorite moments in sports, and highlight some cool innovations and trends.
Of course, we have to start with last year’s Super Bowl. We’d be remiss not to mention it – especially since we just had this years.
Super Bowl LV took place in Tampa, which has some experience hosting the Super Bowl under auspicious circumstances: having hosted it during the Persian Gulf War and the Great Recession.
Last year, Kansas City fans were ecstatic at their second Big Game victory in a row. But they had to watch it from home.
2021’s Big Game took place in the middle of what would be one of the worst spikes of the pandemic. Strict protocols were observed: masking, daily testing of players, and severe limits on the number of people in the stadium – forcing fans who would otherwise have traveled to Florida to stay home. Even under the circumstances, it was an exciting game.
We also can’t talk about sports in 2021 without mentioning the “2020” Olympic Games held in Japan. The Tokyo Games had already been postponed a year due to COVID-19. Then, the Delta variant threw a wrench into the rescheduled games.
It was unique in the history of the Olympic Games: no public spectators, muted enthusiasm due to the pandemic conditions and quarantining and testing of the athletes. Still, Tokyo managed to pull it off and some new sports were introduced that year, including 3×3 basketball and freestyle BMX.
Perhaps one of the most important returns in 2021 was the return of March Madness. When the NCAA canceled the entire tournament in March of 2020 – the first time in the history of college basketball that the championship tournament was canceled – it signaled to the nation that COVID-19 was a life-changing event. Many Americans consider that decision the “official” start of the pandemic in the United States.
For that reason, the 2021 NCAA tournament was a big deal. It gave hope to a nation of basketball fans. It came right as the vaccines were beginning to be more widely distributed. The bleak winter was ending.
Despite the virus conditions, the tournament was a success, with Baylor winning its first title.
The shared thread for each event – and for every competition in 2021 – was navigating the ongoing pandemic and the “return” to sporting events. Following a mostly-shuttered 2020, sports came back in full force in 2021, especially in the late spring and early summer after most Americans received vaccines and before the Delta variant arrived.
Fans adjusted to new protocols. Instead of waiting for vendors to walk by hawking concessions, we ordered and paid on our phones and walked up to the counter when our orders were ready. We used our phones to navigate the parking lot, complete the COVID screenings, and find our friends. Smartphones allowed us to socially distance and eliminate unnecessary surface touching.
COVID definitely loomed large over sports in 2021. But Americans learned how to work around the virus and still enjoy our favorite games.
Beyond the effects of the pandemic, we saw a few important trends take off or take root last year, including:
1. Greater Fan-Athlete Connection: 2021 might have been the year we woke up to the full capability of digital technology. One example that should have been obvious to us before was the unfettered access to players that social media allows. 2021 was the year teams finally started taking advantage of this.
2. Crowdsourcing: Some teams also took greater advantage of the crowdsourcing potential of digital technology. This also bonds fans more intimately with their teams. Fan Controlled Football (FCF) is a case in point: fans draft players, pick lineups, and even set rules.
3. In Venue Digitization and Personalization: The increased role for mobile devices in stadiums has allowed for greater personalization than ever before. In the past, everyone heading to the ballpark got the same experience. Spectating was a mass phenomenon. Now, every person in the park can watch the game in a way that is customized to their preferences.
Some spectators didn’t feel comfortable returning in-person last year, with a pandemic still raging and new variants thwarting a clean “end.” Naturally, many events went hybrid – some for the first time.
NFL and NBA games have been televised for most fans’ entire lives. But other sports added new remote viewing options, or expanded their existing ones.
A number of race organizers offered “blended” races, with a “virtual race” for some participants, and an in-person one for others. Thousands of endurance athletes took part virtually from hundreds of miles away – allowing race organizers to stay afloat in uncertain times.
Traditional sports worked hard to improve their remote-watching experiences. They understood that to retain fans during the pandemic they had to level up their attempts to reach people where they’re at. Teams and leagues used digital technology to make televised sports games “feel” more like in-person ones.
Which brings us to…
We would be remiss to not mention Versus’ XEO Platform here. This clever use of digital technology allowed teams and sponsors in a variety of sports to offer a “second-screen” experience to their fan base.
Versus saw great success in 2021, with uptake by teams in the NBA, MLB, NCAA, NFL, NHL, MLS, and UFC. By mid-October, over one million users were on the XEO Arcade every week. The platform had a role in the NHL playoffs, #MEXTOUR, the Military Bowl, and many other events.
Last year, second-screen technology began to make a real impact on the world of sports – in part by helping leagues and sponsors evolve to meet the COVID moment.
It was a strange year for the world and it was a big year for sports. A full year of COVID and a year of various “returns.”
But importantly, it was also the year that the relationship between sports and digital technology shifted. Smartphones went from annoying distractions to an integral part of the experience. Which also changed the relationship between teams and fans, forever.