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What will the World Cup look like in 2034?

By Adam Mingay, Business Director, UNIT9

The 2022 World Cup brought its usual plethora of fan engagement options all set upon a global stage. As one of the biggest sports tournaments in the world, any major brand associated with football – from clubs and teams, to apparel and sponsors – should always be prepared to seize this lucrative opportunity that only comes around once every four years.

But with only 23% of Gen Z identifying as die-hard sports fans, brands in today’s world already need to be working harder to capture their attention. Tactics include creating tech-led activations that they can relate to, offering options for personalisation and providing direct connection to the athletes. We’re already seeing the genesis of this in the wider world of sports, with Meta’s personalised multiplayer XR experiences for the Rugby World Cup in France; Niantic’s upcoming location-based AR experience NBA World; and Pepsi’s star-studded Super Bowl Halftime show app.

As this generation gets older and Gen Alpha starts to share their place as tech-savvy decision makers, we need to begin thinking about what the future of the World Cup will look like in an increasingly digitally-driven landscape.

Discovery Sports’ newly announced commitment to create immersive Metaverse experiences for live fans might very well indicate a new chapter of sports engagement is just beginning. The full potential of Web 3.0 is certainly not here yet, but by 2034, after a further two tournaments, we’re likely to find ourselves in a vastly evolved reality where a new era of rich, engaging fan experiences are possible.

Rip up the physical rule book

The Metaverse facilitates a world where venueless tournaments are an option. With virtual stadiums applying no cap on numbers, unrestricted audiences can gather from anywhere in the world – meaning the World Cup can truly go worldwide. With Manchester City already announcing their plans to build the Etihad Stadium in the Metaverse, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing World Cup host countries do the same. The rule book for the in-stadium experience can be ripped up and totally reimagined. Fans will be able to view the game from anywhere they choose, have instant access to in-game stats, or even hang out in the virtual changing rooms for a post-match analysis with other guests.

Artificial interaction

Web 3.0 offers the perfect opportunity for fans to get closer than ever before to their sporting heroes – and when combined with AI technology, the options for personalised experiences that speak directly to the user become even more exciting. Lay’s recent campaign involving Lionel Messi, where users were able to generate deepfake video messages from the G.O.A.T himself, is a great starting point. But imagine this within a fully immersive virtual environment, where fans can chat to their favourite athletes one-on-one. It’s unrealistic to think that star footballers would have time to do meet and greets on this scale themselves. But AI would allow us to create super realistic digital recreations that talk, move and act just like the real deal, cementing that personal connection with fans in the virtual space.

Next-gen wearables

Of course, the future of the World Cup won’t solely exist in the digital world; the transformation of the physical tournament is just as important. By 2034, we’re likely to have new technology that will totally revolutionise the tournament for in-person audiences. With the mass adoption of consumer AR wearables, stadium enhancements that up until now have only been theorised – totally seamless player stat overlays, or gamifying the pitch for those in the stands – would very much become reality. Yes, these experiences are technically possible now if viewed through a smartphone screen; but cutting-edge headsets will bring that smooth, imperceptible integration that is lacking in today’s experience.

Data-powered wearables also have a place in the future of the World Cup. Cisco’s Connected Scarf, created for Manchester City FC, transformed one of football’s most iconic symbols of support into a device used to understand fan emotion thanks to integrated sensors that pick up body signals. Taking this one step further, in a future tournament this data could be used to delineate positive and negative moments within a match and lead to predictive approaches. For instance, knowing when fans are disinterested and bringing them back on side with branded content or discounts sent directly to their phone.

Adding value with NFTs

By now, everyone’s heard of NFTs. But in 2034, understanding around this technology will have developed and we’ll see NFTs being used to create real value for brands, teams and users beyond the hype. The sports world is a natural candidate for using this technology due to the strong sense of fan passion and the self-organisation of those communities around athletes, leagues and teams. NFTs can be used to grant access to World Cup fixtures, VIP seats and other exclusive perks – but crucially they can also be traded within those loyal supporter groups to drive buzz, fan engagement and additional revenue for brands and teams as they benefit from all downstream community transactions.

The World Cup is set to undergo a truly transformative makeover in the next 12 years; one that will transcend the physical and digital to redefine live sports. Brands and teams need to start fully considering the tech-fuelled, personalised possibilities that the Web 3.0 era will offer in order to engage football audiences of the future.

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