Apr 8, 2016

Sport in the future: Paul Sherratt assesses the potential threats and opportunities

I’ve always enjoyed launching products six months before the end consumer sees them, as well as working on product development much further ahead.

With this in mind, I began thinking about what the future of sport may be - a much tougher question to consider, but one, if you allow the mind to wander, which could have all manner of implications for the sporting goods industry.

The first man vs machine
In 1980, Carnegie Mellon University launched the Fredkin Prize, named after computer pioneer Edward Fredkin, for anyone who could develop a computer capable of beating a world chess champion. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue team took up the challenge and proceeded to beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion.

In 2011, IBM waged a similar battle on the TV game show Jeopardy! This time they pitted their Watson computer against Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The computer won again.

So if computers can win at chess and Jeopardy!, are we about to see similar contests between robots and football players and driverless cars and F1 drivers? More importantly, do we run the risk of automating these sports out of existence?

Futurist Thomas Frey addressed this question and concluded that while we will see more human vs machine competitions, they won’t jeopardise the sports industry.

But even though human vs machine competitions won’t be an issue, there are several possible threats around the corner for professional sports.

The ultimate form of storytelling
Sport has become the ultimate form of storytelling. Each contest is a test of the human spirit and they all happen in real time.

As a result, sport is the ultimate form of fresh content in a world where relevance is gauged by timeliness and hyper awareness is our competitive edge.

The value of sports broadcasts degrades faster than virtually any other form of content. As a result, it assumes centre stage as we plan our days. Most media companies view sports as an anchor event around which every other programme is scheduled.

But that doesn’t mean the likes of cricket, football and rugby are immune to change. Far from it.

Future athletes
While there are tremendous improvements being made to sporting equipment, protective gear and training simulators, we are seeing many instances where technology goes too far. This includes everything from performance enhancing equipment to genetically reengineering the athletes themselves.

Having gear that stimulates muscles or adds any unusual competitive advantage will first lead to debate and later to a ruling, before being allowed or disallowed. Much like the difference between performance enhancing drugs and legitimate ones, many rulings will have to be made between acceptable and unacceptable tools and equipment, both inside and outside the body.

It is, perhaps, in this field of smart technology where we will see the greatest change in our industry. We are already beginning to see the increase in products such as Fitbit bringing new sales opportunities and it’s clear this trend will continue.

Perhaps the most difficult decisions will have to be made when it comes to genetically engineering athletes from birth.

The super baby problem
In 2014, American consumer genomics company 23andMe received a patent for a designer baby kit that would allow parents to pick and choose attributes for their soon-to-be-conceived children. But 23andMe was not the first to achieve this. The Fertility Institutes’ clinic in Los Angeles delivered the first designer baby in 2009.

Will these so-called super babies grow up to become super humans? And how long will it be before we start seeing these fully grown offspring entering professional sports? Officials will have to decide if these new lab generated super humans should be allowed to compete. Every decision will weigh heavily on whether people will want to continue watching and participating in the sport.

Final thoughts
While it may appear that professional sport is conducting business as usual, a number of competing forces are threatening the nature of the industry.

We are already seeing the rapid rise of video game competitions. Will these become part of the sports industry in the future? If so, will we begin to see a new genre of apparel and footwear aimed at this target market?

We will probably end up with far more questions than answers, but there is a new generation of children wanting to know if their dreams can ever come true. Sport, for many, is the dream. But how different will it be in the future?


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