The first truly digital Olympics: paving the way for Tokyo 2020

Live streams are just the beginning. It's time for the IOC to start thinking about real digital transformation for 2020, says the founding partner of Brooklyn's Work & Co.

I can’t stand crowds. I haven’t been to a concert in 15 years. Even sports, which I play and follow with a passion, are something I avoid in live contexts now.

But the feeling of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with soccer fans in Maracana Stadium in Rio for the Brazil vs. Germany match -- chanting, perspiring -- was downright electrifying. My heart beat three times faster and I cheered ten times louder the moment I knew our country had captured the gold medal. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Yet, for everything that’s so inspiring about the Olympics, I came away realizing the games have a long way to go. It's a grand event that doesn't feel relevant for the way people participate in sports, and more broadly entertainment, today.

It’s no wonder the latest reports for overall Rio Olympics ratings were lackluster. CNN reported that advertisers are being offered "make goods" or free ads to compensate for fewer-than-expected viewers. The Olympics have been trying to connect with a younger audience; ironically the London 2012 logo was hailed as an attempt to draw new viewership, as if branding was the answer.

The Olympics should be commended for surpassing major challenges erecting dozens of tourist hotels, upgrading transportation, and boosting city infrastructure. Rio felt like a different, improved city from when I was there just a few weeks before. But what they haven’t cracked yet? How to leverage digital.

This one-of-a-kind event depends entirely on the International Olympic Committee successfully leveraging technological tools to engage fans around the world, helping to translate the atmosphere of the live event onto a global stage.

These tools must allow for the majority of viewing and engagement to shift away from TV towards digital in order to reach viewers. This shift has already happened in the rest of the industry. Yet, the Olympics is still the Blockbuster in a Netflix era.

So to the IOC, to the networks, to the sponsors, to the host countries I say: digital is your future. We’re merely at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to embracing it in order to grow fandom.

Fortunately, there’s some small small signs of hope in this regard. Media companies were delivering the minimum viable product: streaming was accessible. Globo, the largest media company in Brazil, broadcasted everything live on digital. The IOC is taking steps to use technology to help make future games even better.

In preparation for Tokyo 2020, Japan’s government is said to be ready to splash out on robotics and other tech innovations in the hopes of luring visitors. But there’s more work to be done.

Here’s five ideas for that organizers for the Japan games should be thinking about. Digital can transform the games to amplify the Olympic spirit both inside and outside the stadium walls.

  1. Give viewers more than the live stream. A major insight from when I redesigned the Eurosport Player was that not only do sports fans live for real-time content, they also obsess over secondary content. Watching the Olympics online shouldn’t simply be TV on a tablet, it should be immersive and personal. Help viewers dig deeper into statistics, select different camera angles, create personal alerts, watch key moments, and catch up if you are viewing late.

  2. Don’t forget the fans abroad; create customizable Olympics coverage. The Rio 2016 app had the right idea: ask what country, sports, and athletes the viewer cares about. The problem was it didn’t offer any streaming --only bits of news and pictures. SporTV in Brazil did the opposite by broadcasting everything; they had tons of "channels" on their digital player, but zero personalization. In the future, networks must find the happy medium. As a Brazilian in the US, I can currently only follow Team Brazil if NBC decides to show a match. But, even if it’s just a raw live feed with no journalist covering it, the media should provide streaming and personalization.

  3. Show the world what world-class sports looks like through the mobile. With the ubiquity of mobile, everyone is taking selfies and filming their favorite moments. The IOC must embrace social media, and use it to enhance the live experience. Show the perspective from the crowd by centralizing user-generated Olympics content to give a view from the fans and athletes. So when the Rio Olympics asked fans to turn on their camera flashlights to do the "olla"? It was fun. But that’s merely a fragment of the potential for mobile to engage fans, whether they’re at the Games or watching from home.

  4. Learn from Pokemon Go and gamify the games! Augmented reality has a natural place inside and outside of the games. Imagine a Waze-like experience, where people have avatars for their country and can interact with each other for fun - and for the singles, maybe for something else. Can the Games be gamified for tourists? Visitors could learn about the host city, other visitors, or even earn their own medals.

  5. C’mon. It’s time to ditch the paper tickets. In Rio, the tickets were still old school. For 2020, digital tickets must a reality. But beyond that, people will always be buying and selling tickets. It’s how I got to attend 4 events through friends with spares during a last minute business trip to Rio. It’s a behavior the IOC should embrace because it’s never going to change: emergencies happen, people get sick, and teams drop out early. This should be facilitated and made legal - and digital can help manage the entire lifecycle for buying, selling, and transferring tickets.

There’s simply nothing like the Olympic games. With digital, they can be so much more to a broader group of fans. I’m excited to see what 2020 has to bear. The challenge? Executing on these ideas well. Bring it on, Japan!


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