How innovation fuelled Australia’s summer of sport

By Martin Medcraf
By By Martin Medcraf | 8 February 2021
Martin Medcraf

Martin Medcraf, director of sports sales and partnerships, Foxtel Media.

Sports were hit hard in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple tournaments across multiple codes cancelled or postponed in Australia and globally.

As sports returned to even greater audiences over the course of 2020, we saw significant shifts in consumer behaviour, media consumption and purchase patterns – which culminated in one of the biggest summers of sports ever.

If there’s one thing we learned last year, it’s that nothing can shake Australia’s love for sports. The audience trends are reflective of the passion this country has for its pastimes. Over the past 12 months, Australian tier one sports, such as AFR, NRL and cricket, have seen audiences grow exponentially. 2020 was the highest ratings season for LIVE NRL (325,000 average viewing audience) and LIVE AFL (283,000 average viewing audience) on Foxtel.

The power of sports lies in the emotion that it invokes in audiences, and this is especially true of the summer of cricket. Australia vs India was the highest rating Test Series in STV. The 2020 One Day International (ODI) series averaged 526,000 viewers on Foxtel, a 39% increase in viewership compared to 2019 (379,000 viewers). It was also the highest ODI ratings in STV history.

The 2020 Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) Grand Final also broke records as the most watched WBBL game on STV (131,000 viewers). This is up 24% from the 2019 Grand Final figures (106,000 viewers).

The success of the past cricket season is partly due to its speed in adapting to the strict guidelines that pandemic brought, and the utilisation of ground-breaking new technology. Foxtel’s Live Player Tracker used AI technology to detect players’ faces and bodies and differentiate between umpires and other moving objects. This enables fans to see field positions, player names, precise speed and distance all in real time.

FOX TRACER also took viewers deep into the anatomy of every big hit. It synchronised real-time vision and replayed a hit with augmented reality for frame-by-frame ball tracking. Fans could follow the ball in a split-screen, data-rich environment. We also repurposed the Toyota Flying Fox as an interview tool this year in accordance with social-distancing measures.

This new format of viewing also brought with it new opportunities for our brand partners to engage with audiences. McDonalds and Toyota used QR codes for the very first time during our broadcasts to enrich viewers’ experience while they watched from home. The QR codes, which Australians became much more familiar with during the pandemic, were incredibly well received and amassed over 190,000 scans across five matches. McDonalds ran a cash giveaway competition that took fans to a landing page with entry details. While Toyota’s QR code sent fans to the Good For Cricket web page where they could learn more about Toyota’s Good For Cricket raffle and buy tickets.

The incredible sports viewership numbers we have seen over the past year highlight that streaming is the new frontier of sports viewership. The Kayo platform now has a 644,000 strong customer base, which is a tremendous 77% increase from 2018 figures. This number is set to skyrocket this year with NRL and AFL live streaming happening on the platform through our Telstra partnership and our launch of Kayo Freebies, which will give sports fans access to a selection of live sports broadcasts at no cost.

Our growing numbers are very much in line with the nation’s viewing habits with recent research finding that 39% of Australians currently subscribe to at least one sports platform. This trend, combined with innovative technology, presents great opportunities for media services and marketers.

Although gathering in large groups in stadiums is still restricted, technology can help push the boundaries of what sports viewing used to be. Further innovation can add more layers of engagement into an audience experience, making it much more immersive and capturing the sense of live action and team spirit.

Ultimately, Australians’ passion for sports remains undiminished and going forward, 2021 will continue to be a year of innovation and rich engagement for sports, brands and audiences.