Kings League, Baller League & Co.: Innovative formats for more fan participation in sport

The world of sport is in a constant state of transformation, driven by new technologies, changing user behaviour and the rising expectations of fans. Innovative formats that reinvent sport are not just on the rise. They are already here.

The evolution of sport: why innovation is crucial

The rapid development of technologies and changing fan expectations are driving innovation in sport. According to the "Sports Fan Insights 2023" report by Deloitte, Gen Z fans in particular are looking for increasingly interactive sports experiences. They don't just want to watch, they want to actively participate in the game and feel part of a community. The ability to follow games from the athletes' perspective, to gain exclusive insights behind the scenes or to have a say in the game through voting is of crucial importance to them. Nowadays, participation via social media, apps and the like plays a major role in this. Current examples in traditional football, such as the constant fan protests due to the incomprehensibility of the hand rule or when the VAR intervenes, show how fans feel left behind by football institutions that decide new rules for "their sport" over their heads and then fail to explain them clearly.

When gamers influence the real race

During the Ocean Race in 2009, the Green Dragon team came up with an innovation that blurred the boundaries between online gaming and real sport. In the seventh leg of this challenging sea regatta, the numerous players of the Ocean Race online game were given the unique opportunity to "participate" directly in the real event.

The virtual sailors received regular information about the current conditions at sea, including weather reports, the condition of the ship and the crew. Players could actively influence the course of events by choosing between three different route options. The Green Dragon team, representing the virtual players, could then decide whether to accept or reject the advice of the player community based on the voting results. If they decided against it, they had to justify their choice. A unique interaction between the virtual and real sailors - and the first time that an online gaming community actively influenced a live sporting event and influenced a team's strategic decisions in real time.

Democratic fan involvement via app

There are also ambitions in traditional football to involve fans and give them an active role. The French football club Avant Garde Caennaise, which currently plays in the French fifth division, has also adopted innovative ways of engaging fans. Back in 2017, the club developed an app that turned the traditional coaching and management model on its head.

With "United Managers", fans could actively participate in shaping the team. They were able to determine the starting line-up and tactics for each match, select substitutes and decide who should take free kicks. During matches, fans could even communicate with the coaching staff in real time and vote on player substitutions and tactical changes. In order to participate in the decision-making process, fans had to buy so-called "coins". The more active a fan was, the more weight their opinion carried in the final outcome. The app also offered fans the opportunity to watch live streams of matches and training sessions and view extensive statistics. The French Football Federation had originally approved the app, but the project had to be cancelled after complaints from other clubs in the league.

The power of fans in American indoor football

The Fan Controlled Football League (FCF) is an indoor football league that started in February 2021 with four teams. A total of twelve games were played over a period of six weeks. Although the league is currently paused, it has already received a lot of attention. Fans buy NFTs via the league's official app to influence their chosen team. A democratic draft takes place before each match day, where fans can select players for their team. During the games, they can vote on the next moves in real time. The league has seen impressive media coverage with more than 2.4 million live views per match day and 100 million highlight views per season. The games are broadcast live on platforms such as Twitch and DAZN.

Fan engagement in the FCF is impressive - there are over 250,000 active players per day. Active participation is particularly rewarded. Through interactions, fans can reach a higher level to increase their influence. There are special badges, power-ups for the teams and other rewards that can be earned and contribute to the excitement. In addition to the intensive involvement of the fans, this unique football league also uses innovative technologies such as drones, helmet cameras and virtual reality to offer spectators an even more intense and immersive experience.

Spanish football, newly defined

In the Kings League, which was founded by footballer Gerard Piqué among others, twelve teams compete with twelve players each. Ten of the players are selected in a draft, while players number 11 and 12 are former or active professionals. Each team also has a president from the worlds of football, streaming or social media. The matches are played on a small pitch in a 7-on-7 format and last 2x20 minutes. Intensive interaction with the fans also takes centre stage in the Kings League.

The league is divided into a winter and a summer split. During the league phase, all six games are played consecutively in the same stadium. This is followed by play-offs at the end of the season, in which the top eight teams compete against each other. There are also special rules and innovations in the Kings League. For example, the coach randomly selects one of six power-ups (so-called action cards) before each game, which he can then use during the match. This makes it possible, for example, for own goals to count double for two minutes or for an opposing player to leave the pitch for two minutes. The action cards are intended to increase the excitement and unpredictability of the game, as well as the gamification factor. Another rule states that every game must produce a winner. If there is a draw after forty minutes, the game goes straight to a penalty shoot-out. A large proportion of the rules have been and continue to be co-designed by fans via social media.

The Kings League has achieved an impressive reach in a short amount of time, with hundreds of thousands of followers on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, YouTube and TikTok. On average, there are over half a million live viewers per match day, totalling over 170 million live views in the last season. The league is intended to appeal to young target groups in particular. Due to its great success, there are now also spin-offs such as the Queens League for women and the Prince Cup for boys born between 2012 and 2014.

Baller League: Innovative football in Germany

The Baller League can be described as a further development of the Kings League in Germany - for example, 24 team managers, including numerous female creators, are part of the league. Like the Kings League, it is a response to the changing needs of younger football fans in Germany and the changing media landscape. At a time when viewers' attention spans are getting shorter and interactive, gamified formats are favoured, the Baller League is taking innovative measures to put football back at the centre of entertainment - without a paywall, with broadcasts and content on free-to-air channels.

The new football league is played over 12 match days and focuses in particular on "true football" in a contemporary style as well as on the closeness to the players and the format. It clearly sets itself apart from other creator formats in sport, as the influencers and celebrities do not play themselves, but act as "managers" or ambassadors for their teams of 12. In this 7-on-7 format, only footballers at third, fourth or fifth division level will play against each other, who can apply in advance in a national draft in December 2023 and are then coached by professional coaches. The first season will run from the beginning of January to the end of March 2024 and will therefore offer over four months of content, including the draft, and thus sustainable opportunities for sponsor involvement.

For the first time in Germany, 25 of the personalities with the widest reach are coming together to offer every viewer the best possible football entertainment over 12 weeks.

Felix Starck, CEO of Baller League

The league offers talented footballers a high-reach platform on which they can showcase their skills while guaranteeing top-class sporting competition. It not only relies on traditional football rules, but also on modern and entertaining innovations to inspire fans. For example, there will be a referee cam and fans will be able to follow the players' conversations on the pitch via microphones. The live reactions of the prominent team captains on the side lines will also be broadcasted. However, content will not only be provided on match day: throughout the week, there will be formats focussing on the league and its teams. The Baller League is expected to reach over 500 million impressions.

What sets the Baller League apart, in addition to its focus on "real football in a contemporary content format", is the fact that the fans take centre stage. They are actively involved in the football experience and have the opportunity to participate in shaping the league and its rules. Thanks to the diverse line-up consisting of professional footballers such as Mats Hummels or Lukas Podolski and high-reach personalities from TV, music and lifestyle, it appeals to a large, young target group. They can follow the Baller League not only via streams and creator channels, but also in traditional media. The league's own channels offer fans news feeds, fantasy games, transfer reports and statistics on players and teams, among other things.

The examples show: Innovations to get fans more involved in sport have become increasingly important in recent years. From the opportunity to take part in an ocean race as a virtual sailor to a fan-controlled football team and the Baller League, there is a broad spectrum of creative ideas. The second new football format has now even been announced in Germany: the Icon League, founded by footballer Toni Kroos and streamer Elias "Eligella" Nerlich, is set to start in summer 2024.

Sport is constantly changing and the combination of technology, fan interaction and innovative ideas is shaping its future. Above all, the focus is on the fans, who are actively involved in shaping the sport and its rules. This promises not only more exciting sporting experiences, but also a broader and younger target group that is interested in sport. It remains to be seen what other innovations will emerge in the world of sport to enrich the sporting experience.

Beyond the Match
The SPORTFIVE Magazine

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