TORONTO — The pandemic has forced all businesses to pivot, including Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in the absence of people in the stands.
While Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs games go on, fans are forced to watch from their living rooms.
To help reconnect its audience to its teams and each other, the sports and entertainment giant has introduced a "digital arena" to its Raptors and Maple Leafs apps.
"It's the digital manifestation of being at a game," said Humza Teherany, MLSE's chief technology and digital officer.
For Teherany, the digital arena is a chance for fans to come together virtually, to "digitally enable" Jurassic Park and Leafs Nation.
"While everybody else is thinking about how to get sports back physically — and that is important and we are too, there's tons of energy, the majority of energy goes into that — we didn't want to stop there," said Teherany. "We wanted to really think about what else sports would be about once we recover from this pandemic
"The experience is going to be different. Everything's going to be different, even when we do have fans back at Scotiabank Arena … We think a lot of these digital components, they don't go away once COVID ends. They're going to remain. We're going to find ways to have both experiences.
"And now, frankly, if you're a Raptors fan anywhere in the world, you can come to Jurassic Park."
The digital arena has launched for the Raptors and Leafs. MLSE says it's on the way for Toronto FC.
"Imagine the TFC supporters' section coming alive digitally," said Teherany. "That will be something interesting to see. Maybe not as wild, but definitely the comments will be flying."
The platform was developed by MLSE Digital Labs, the company’s in-house technology and digital team, with assistance from Vancouver's Tradable Bits Media. The NBA's Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs have already bought the MLSE technology to showcase their own digital arenas.
"We're seeing great interest from the sports community around what we've done," said Teherany.
Prior to the pandemic, MLSE had been looking at ways to improve fan access outside of the venue. COVID-19 accelerated the project.
Entering the app, you see a box to enter the digital arena. That allows you to take part in a number of interactive games from "predictive trivia" to virtual T-shirt tosses (you'd don't win a T-shirt but you earn points that can lead to prizes).
"We've seen tremendous response so far," Christian Magsisi, MLSE's senior director, technology and digital, said of the trivia. "I want to say we're north of 55, almost 60 per cent of participation on the site."
The idea is to give fans at home some of what they got at Scotiabank Arena. For tip-off of Raptors games, for example, they can click on a team logo to jointly increase the noise meter. And you can seen what's on the arena Jumbotron.
The digital arena also provides a live chat and statistics, which will be expanded in the months to come.
Friends will be able to set up private chat rooms. And the plan is to incorporate team alumni or media personalities to engage with fans — something that has already been done in a pilot TFC project.
"Sports is better with friends and sports is better as a community," said Magsisi, who adds a test run with season-ticket holders showed people in the same section reaching out to each other.
Magsisi says the chat room has got interesting when the Raptors mascot joined the conversation.
"People quite literally just turn into children again. Everyone's saying hi to the Raptor and asking weird questions."
The stats side will grow considerably down the line, using NHL puck and player tracking data in the future.
"In real time, in the very, very near future, over the next six months, you're going to be able to seed how fast Auston Matthews is skating. Or how much energy he has left because he's been on a long shift," Magsisi said.
The Raptors and Leafs already have a good social media following. The Raptors have 2.3 million followers on Twitter and 3.3 million on Instagram while the comparable numbers for the Leafs are 1.9 million and 1.1 million.
The Raptors and Leafs apps also boast the No. 1 user base in their respective leagues, although MLSE won't detail exact numbers.
The MLSE team apps started primarily to enhance the experience of arena fans, allowing them to store their tickets digitally or order food or merchandise from their seats. MLSE has expanded them since then, showing coaches' news conferences or offering behind-the-scenes content between games.
"We don't compete with other sports apps," said Teherany. "What we do is give you a deep view and connection into the Raptors and into the Leafs."
Early figures since the digital arena launched show users spent 20 to 25 per cent longer on the app than they normally would, according to Sumit Arora, MLSE's senior director, strategy and analytics. And users return to the app more often.
The digital platform also incorporates the MLSE Foundation’s 50/50 draw and allows MLSE to offer promotions with corporate partners — one offered an UberEats code for the first 500 people going into the digital arena.
Season-ticket holders can access their account information from their phone.
With leagues opening the door to sports betting relationships, the apps would seem well suited to connect another way. But Teherany says MLSE is holding back right now, seeing how the wagering landscape settles.
MLSE Digital Labs' team has grown to 150 people from 50 since Teherany joined some three years ago.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press