Microsoft sees big opportunity in the Australian sporting industry

While Australia has a large sports fan base, its sporting industry lags behind the US and Europe when it comes to exploiting technology, according to Jesus Castro, Microsoft Sports business development architect.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

"Let's change the game together" are the words of Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, who recognised an opportunity for the company to make a mark in the sporting industry.

Two years ago, Microsoft introduced a new division dedicated to ideating, building, and rolling out technology solutions for the sporting industry.

Its Global Sports Innovation Centre in Madrid was opened to help facilitate this. The centre, which is backed by more than 100 partners worldwide, is open to entrepreneurs, students, companies, and civic organisations interested in advancing the sporting industry.

The global business development architect for Microsoft Sports, Jesus Serrano Castro, told ZDNet there is a huge opportunity for sporting organisations around the world to enhance fan engagement, build 'smarter' venues, create new revenue streams, and improve athlete performance through technology.

Describing Australia as a sports-mad nation because it closely "follows five or six sports, unlike European nations that follow one or two", Castro said Australia's sporting industry lags behind other nations when it comes to exploiting technology.

For Microsoft Sports, this makes Australia a market rife with opportunity.

"We are trying to bring the world's best practices to help Australian sporting organisations succeed in [the local] market," said Castro.

He said that a lot of the solutions that are being rolled out by Microsoft across the sporting industry are already being used by enterprises in other industries, but their benefits are only recently being realised by sporting organisations.

"We are bringing all of our expertise around enterprise insights and productivity to [the sports industry]. A lot of [sports clubs and organisations] are small to medium enterprises with 100 to 300 employees, so there are concrete areas that are relevant for sports organisations -- such as customer analytics -- that we can help them with," Castro said.

Improving athlete performance

Ahead of the Rio Olympics in August, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) partnered with Microsoft in an effort to use data to boost the gold medal count for Australian athletes.

In a Microsoft Q&A, Nick Brown, deputy director for Performance, Science and Innovation at the AIS, said the institute was capturing around 300 data points from 2,000 athletes each week who were preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio.

"We collect data on how much they trained, how they felt, how well they slept, their physiological data for the day, and physiotherapy information. And all that data is stored in one place -- our Athlete Management System," he said.

While the institute was able to capture meaningful data, it wasn't able to effectively transform that data into meaningful insights. Using Microsoft-powered predictive analytics, AIS is able to estimate when athletes will perform their best or when they're likely to get ill or injured.

"We can lose up to 20 percent of an athlete's training time due to injury and illness. And when they don't train, we know they're often unable to meet performance targets. We partnered with Microsoft and BizData to help answer a question -- how could we know if an athlete was likely to be injured in the next three days?" Brown said in the Q&A.

"We used predictive analytics and machine learning to better understand the relationship between training loads and injury and illness. We now know that an athlete needs to maintain a high to moderate chronic training load. Basically, they need to stay fit long-term and not have any sudden peaks or troughs in their training."

Castro, who's been working at Microsoft for 10 years, told ZDNet that athlete and team performance is "the most innovative area" the company's sports division is working in.

He added that psychological and physiological information such as mood, soreness, and sleep quality is highly relevant to coaches as it helps them make smarter decisions about, for example, when the next training session should take place.

"Coaches and athletes can review all kinds of information on the dashboard and can plan the tactical aspects of the game," Castro said.

"The most important thing is to predict when the players are at risk of being injured. [The technology] also provides them with a library of exercises for different parts of their body -- if you're injured in one area, you have to work on a different area."

While it's only now that we're seeing a massive mainstream uptake of wearable devices -- IDC estimates more than 100 million wearable devices will be shipped this year -- Castro said the technology was already being used by professional athletes years ago. The difference now is the range of wearable devices available in the market from multinational brands.

"The big difference is not only that you have different providers -- it's very heterogeneous -- but also that there is no standard in this area. Each [wearable device] is producing data in a different way," Castro said.

"So what we are trying to do is provide a platform in the cloud that allows the coach and his/her team to inject different kinds of data from different sources and different providers."

On top of this, Microsoft is building the capability for coaches and teams to feed video information into the cloud platform.

"By being able to measure, in real-time, the positions of the players, the distances between the players in the team, they know how best to work together," said Castro.

"Big data doesn't always mean big information."

Increasing fan engagement

One of Castro's main responsibilities within the Microsoft Sports division is to envision new experiences for fans, but also to identify ways to convert those experiences into new revenue streams for sporting organisations.

"We are trying to drive deeper fan engagement with experiences inside and outside the stadium, and connect these experiences to the sporting organisation's ecosystem," Castro said.

Two years ago, football powerhouse Real Madrid partnered with Microsoft to create one-to-one meaningful relationships with fans around the world to increase revenue by customising marketing initiatives.

Castro emphasised that the first step is to understand that fans are not passive consumers of sport.

"Previously, [fan engagement was] done by spamming everyone with the same information [the organisations] wanted to communicate. For example, it is ridiculous to send Malaysian fans [exclusive] ticket prices of your next local match because they wouldn't have the opportunity to attend. Communication is no longer one-sided," he said.

"There needs to be a one-to-one relationship with every fan. Every fan is different, every fan has their own preference."

Through "social listening", Microsoft was able to determine that Real Madrid had 450 million fans around the world; and contrary to the club's assumption, a majority of these fans were not Spanish-speaking. They were Indonesian-speaking.

This knowledge prompted Real Madrid to offer an Indonesian translation of all the content across its digital communication channels to be closer to the fans.

Castro said it's important for organisations to connect with fans on platforms they use. This means that organisations, federations, and clubs not only have to manage first-party assets, but also second-party and third-party assets.

"Sports organisations have good control of their own first-party assets -- their websites, stores, consumer apps. But what about the second-party assets and the third-party assets? They're the ones that are difficult to manage. Second party assets are mostly ones that are related to the organisation's sponsoring partners, and third-party assets are the most difficult to manage like social networks," said Castro.

"Our tools make it easier to manage all these assets and to react to what people are saying about you on [third-party applications like social networks]."

Experiencing sport in new ways

The days of nations watching the same game on television sets in their living rooms are gone, according to Microsoft. Viewers demand access to high-quality broadcasts on all kinds of mobile devices.

Castro envisions a future where fans around the world, using technology such as the Microsoft HoloLens, can experience live games in augmented reality.

"In this area, what we are doing is trying to convert your living room into a stadium. You don't need to have limitations because you have a very small TV set at home. We want to create a screen that can be as big as your own world," Castro said.

"Instead of you trying to imagine the stadium, why not have a real-life representation of the stadium in your home? Why not open up the stadium and let you explore the stadium?"

He added how he envisages fans having access to all the interactions taking place on social networks through the HoloLens, as well as the statistics of players and information about how the players are moving around the field.

"The Spanish League is one of the first ones in the world to track the positions of the players with about 32 cameras at the same time. We can provide this information in real-time to new devices like the HoloLens to recreate a match with the real video feed in real-time," said Castro.

"Why not recreate your favourite player in your living room and make that player break the wall and be there with you doing his or her characteristic movements? Some of the famous players in Europe have a concrete celebration for their goals."

Castro said it's important that fans are able to share these experiences with others.

"We are thinking that everyone can interact with these experiences at the same time. It is a very realistic experience that you're sharing with others. Someone could be interacting with an object on your living room table and you're seeing the exact same thing at the same time," he added.

It'll be a while, however, before sporting fans will be able to experience games in this way, given there are various components -- from the technology to broadcasting licenses -- that need to come together to make it possible. But Castro said Microsoft is actively working on it to make it a reality.

Lately, Microsoft has been trying to solidify its position as a comprehensive enterprise solutions provider.

For instance, Microsoft is looking to the Windows 10 Enterprise E3 and E5 subscription plans as a way to upsell more small and midsize business users. Microsoft's own data shows only about 0.5 percent of small to mid-size business users who are running Windows are running the Enterprise version.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced its plans to consolidate its many volume-licensing agreements with a new addition called Enterprise Advantage on the Microsoft Products and Services Agreement, coming in early 2017.

In September 2015, Microsoft introduced the Surface Enterprise Initiative, allowing companies like HP and Dell to sell Surface PCs alongside additional support and other services such as industry-specific applications. The scheme also makes it easier for larger organisations to buy from a single company and have the devices deployed in more than one country. Since its launch, Microsoft claims there are 10,000 companies selling Surface.

Last month, Telstra and Microsoft formed a partnership to deliver managed voice services to Office 365 enterprise customers, combining cloud collaboration with a voice-calling solution. As part of the partnership, Telstra's managed services -- voice and network assessments -- are paired with Skype for Business through the Office 365 cloud product.

Microsoft also announced its intention to create enterprise bots for areas like customer management.

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