The global pandemic has instilled a sense of longing for the recreational activities people once took for granted: dining with friends, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a concert, watching a live sporting event—the list goes on.
Thankfully, the pandemic will eventually end and people will gradually return to their favorite weekend routines. That also means our reliance on technology created to replace those activities will also transition to some kind of companion experience. It may also mean the end of livestreamed living room concerts and Zoom drinks with friends, but that’s a pretty easy trade-off.
For Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) chief technology and digital officer Humza Teherany, the question wasn’t so much about getting sports back to normal, but rather, what could normal sports look like post-pandemic.
“When COVID hit, the whole sports and entertainment industry was halted,” explains Teherany. “Every team in North America was asking, “How do we play? How do we get fans in?’ And we were focused on that, of course—but also, about a month and a half into the pandemic, we started to also think, ‘What would sports be like once we return?’”
The answer showcases an incredible look at how sports—just like nearly every other industry in the world—has evolved to fit the “every company is a tech company” adage, and even more particularly, the increasing need to focus on customer experience.
“About a month and a half into the pandemic, we started to think, ‘What would sports be like once we return?’”Humza Teherany, chief technology and digital officer, MLSE
“As we began to talk about the new normal for sports, we always started with the experience,” says Teherany. “Before we talked about new technology, or how it might all work, we realized that the concept of an arena was gone.”
And just like that, MLSE’s vision of a digital arena was born.
What is a digital arena?
MLSE is one of the largest sports organizations in North America, overseeing two separate billion-dollar teams in the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, as well as the MLS’ rapidly-growing Toronto Football Club (TFC).
Officially unveiled last month, MLSE’s digital arena has been in development since May 2020 and beta-launched in August. The entire early prototype for the digital arena was built in just 45 days, helped along by a partnership with Canadian startup Tradable Bits Media.
The digital arena offers fans a number of ways to connect with their favorite teams and other fans. Currently, the digital arena experience is offered through both the Toronto Maple Leafs app as well as the Toronto Raptors app (both of which are the most popular apps in their respective professional leagues) and will be expanded to include the TFC shortly.
When a fan enters the app, they will see a prompt to join the digital arena. Once inside, there are different activities and games to take part in, all designed to act as a second-screen experience and enhance typical at-home viewing.
One of the most engaging attractions is predictive trivia. Based on the current game, there are questions posed to the user, such as “When was the last time the Raptors wore these alternate jerseys?” If answered correctly, the user receives points they can then redeem for a number of rewards. There are also events such as virtual t-shirt tosses that can also score a fan some points (but not a t-shirt, at least for now).
Engagement numbers have been higher than predicted, too, with more than half of the digital arena participants taking part in the different activities.
“60% of the people in the digital arena are playing the games and using predictive trivia,” explains Christian Magsisi, senior director of technology and digital at MLSE.
“60% of the people in the digital arena are playing the games and using predictive trivia.”Christian Magsisi, senior director of technology and digital, MLSE
The digital arena also features different sections for fans to “watch from,” each with their own live chat.
“The high engagement is important because we know we can build community through chat, but to be a true second-screen experience, we want the fans to engage with us through the interactive elements in the digital arena,” says Magsisi.
“They can have that digital camaraderie and can now actually talk to other fans,” adds Teherany.
Teherany is especially excited about this chat function. He realizes chat is nothing new, but MLSE’s presentation turns it into a dynamic and engaging experience. People will be able to set up private chat rooms with friends, and team alumni and mascots may drop by to say hello. In addition, test rooms set up with season ticket holders led to different fans reaching out to one another, connecting much in the same way they would as if they were sitting a row back from one another.
“It’s the way we’ve integrated the chat into the mobile experience and made it native and put game presentation around it. You could be tracking the score, you’re seeing trivia, you’re seeing all these things, and the chat is really the central point,” says Teherany.
He points to a recent moment when Maple Leafs star forward Auston Matthews scored an overtime winner.
“When you see that happen, you see comments and emojis fly, just like people would be buzzing in a real arena,” says Teherany. “It’s inspiring to see the conversation between our fans during COVID when they can’t be in an arena together, but you can still feel some of that energy.”
Bridging the physical/digital divide
Another key value add for MLSE’s digital arena is the introduction of detailed stat tracking. This is arguably the most vital component of the experience as it offers something for the dedicated superfans, even once they’re allowed back in stadiums.
Right now, the stats section is a bit bare, but it will grow over the next few months. In 2019, the NHL introduced league-wide tracking technology for both the puck and players inside every arena and that information will be fed directly into the digital experience.
But MLSE Digital Labs (the innovation arm of MLSE), in collaboration with the NHL, built its own front-end stat tracking technology that will act as a differentiator to keep fans engaged inside the digital arena.
“It’s our own puck and player tracking visualization engine that gets plugged into our apps,” explains Teherany. “It takes the streaming data off the ice and brings it into our visualization engine, providing an amazingly beautiful and exclusive experience.”
The depth of the engine is vast: fans will be able to select a specific player and see stats such as real-time skating speed; breakout paths around the ice; the zones he is spending the most time in, and more.
“When we beta tested that technology, it was just remarkable to see that data streaming off the ice,” says Teherany. “Those are the things that continue to be game-changers for us in terms of our development roadmap and filling out that experience in the digital sense.”
Beyond building a leading second-screen stat experience, MLSE is also working on other ways to connect the digital world to the physical one. Any sports fan that has watched a game in the last year knows that there has been artificial crowd noise pumped into the empty live games. Even though it sounds similar, it’s just not the same—so as part of the digital experience, MLSE wanted to empower fans to make their own noise.
“There are moments in the digital arena that you can’t share with others—you can’t get up and stand and shout with other fans, right?” says Teherany. “That’s one of the most fun parts of being at a game.”
The solution was a ‘Get Loud’ button. Digital arena fans can rapidly press the logoed buttons and generate crowd noise for pivotal moments in the respective game. It’s straightforward enough—press a button, hear a bit of noise—but it’s a deceptively simple way to continually connect digital fans with the in-person experience. And to answer the question: no, there is not a feature coming to press a button and jeer referees for making a bad call.
“Regardless of whether you’re watching at home or watching in Shanghai, you can actually now participate in a digital arena and it doesn’t cost you anything to get in,” says Teherany.
“Regardless of whether you’re watching at home or in Shanghai, you can now participate in a digital arena and it doesn’t cost you anything to get in.”Humza Teherany
MLSE Digital Labs is continually experimenting with new ways to connect the app to physical experiences. Some of the obvious ones, such as ordering food from seats and integrating digital ticketing, already exist. Less obvious ones may roll out soon, including digital wayfinding that points fans to less-crowded entrances, or even their seats.
“I think the collision of the physical world and the digital world will be interesting and will evolve post-COVID,” says Teherany. “We have the number one user base in both the NHL and the NBA, so we have millions of active fans across all of our platforms to introduce this technology to.”
Digital innovation meets professional sports
MLSE’s decision to develop a digital arena is a testament to the weight digital innovation now carries within professional sports. When Digital spoke with Teherany two years ago, he stated that MLSE benchmarks itself against “not only other sports and entertainment companies and leagues but also against big technology companies and how they approach problems.”
The prevailing trend among leading technology companies has been to obsess over the customer experience. “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts,” Jeff Bezos famously said while building Amazon into the world’s largest retailer.
So, for MLSE, controlling one leading sports team would be more than enough incentive to build a digital fan experience—but controlling three made the decision table-stakes.
One of the perks of being a massive sports organization is the vastly increased allowance for digital innovation. MLSE Digital Labs is the largest of its kind in North America, featuring nearly 150 engineers, designers, marketers, and more who wake up every morning thinking about how to connect with fans online. That team has grown over the last year, but even before the pandemic sped up every business’ digital roadmap, digital was a priority at MLSE.
“I would say the pandemic has definitely heightened our digital awareness, but I actually don’t think our focus has changed,” says Teherany. “The openness to think of ourselves as an enabler of our business through technology has been there well before COVID.”
It was this culture of innovation that led to the development of the digital arena. The idea came from an early “What-if?” session held inside the labs, when many MLSE Digital Labs members kept pitching different experiences they missed from physical arenas, without ever notion of developing new features to replace them. Teherany and his team realized all of the different ideas could come together and form a united experience, much like an in-person NHL or NBA game is itself a microcosm of different events and activities.
“Again, experience is the keyword, because we weren’t sitting there and talking about features,” he says. “As we went through these conversations, you try to connect the dots. It wasn’t just like if someone said, ‘Hey, let’s build a digital arena.’ It was all about the concept of an experience that we thought could add value for fans.”
Perhaps the biggest validation of the digital arena efforts came when MLSE Digital Labs was approached by two other NBA teams: the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs. Both teams wanted to buy the digital arena technology off MLSE.
“I’ve never seen that before,” says Teherany. “These organizations were talking about how they buy technology from other vendors, so why not buy from each other? So my answer to that was, ‘Sure!’ It was pretty organic.”
Many of these conversations happened during meetings of the NBA’s Team Innovation Advisory Council, which features members from seven teams discussing new ways to innovate the game of basketball. Teherany represents the Raptors from the digital innovation perspective, and because leagues like the NBA and NHL are very collegial, there is a lot of discussion around IP and sharing best practices, along with how new technology can make the game more accessible.
Although the notion of a professional sports organization building an internal technology platform and selling it to another team is unprecedented, Teherany is quick to point out it’s just like working with any other vendor.
“Look: we’re not smarter than everybody else,” he says. “We have the same outlook on where things are going.”
There is also the opportunity to integrate new commercial partnerships in the future. MLSE lists potential features such as direct-to-consumer subscriptions and memberships, embedded e-commerce, and even in-game betting as advantages to buying and utilizing the digital arena technology. There is no word as to when these could roll out, but as sports betting laws become increasingly relaxed across North America, there is massive potential to bring gambling directly inside team apps.
With digital arena technology now rolled out and thousands of fans engaging with different activities within the app, MLSE understands that the lack of in-person crowds offered a perfect opportunity to build a second-screen experience fans will be drawn into.
“We like to be pragmatic,” says Teherany. “We like to build our innovation based on an opportunity and a problem that we’re solving.”
It’s now the organization’s mission to ensure the digital arena continues to appeal to fans, even as they trickle back into arenas and cheer in person. With exclusive data visualization engines, stat tracking technology, and engaging contests, MLSE is certainly on the right path—now it’s just up to the teams to put up a few Ws themselves.