In 2002, South Korean soccer was in the global spotlight when the country, alongside Japan, hosted the FIFA World Cup games in Asia for the first time. The local team reached the semifinals and ultimately finished fourth. Now, South Korean soccer is back in the global spotlight, after the country reopened its top league, the K-League. It’s expected to serve as a model for countries reopening their professional sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.
At a time when social distancing is the main tool for fighting the novel coronavirus, sports leagues that reopen are going to be doing so under restrictions – and the crowds, one of the sector’s main income streams, are going to be staying home. In order to bridge the gap, the Korean league is partnering with Israeli startup WSC Sports. The startup’s technology will be integrated into the K-League. WSC Sports offers an artificial intelligence platform that creates sports shorts automatically and in real time, which can be broadcast via TV or digitally.
“Soccer is the most watched sport in South Korea,” says Guy Port, head of Asia Pacific region for WSC Sports. “It’s a market with high potential for revenue. One of the trends formed in the wake of the coronavirus is large consumption of video content. Since people still can’t come to the fields, video has become a major part of the puzzle.”
According to the data company SportBusiness, K-League’s revenues from broadcast rights totaled $5.1 million in 2019, and the Korea Football Association took in $8.5 million for selling national-team rights. An average K-League game would have 8,000 spectators, but they’re not likely to be coming back anytime soon. The Korean league’s directors realize that incorporating technological tools into live broadcasts and creating interactions with fans has potential to maintain the cuomer base and create new revenue streams.
WSC Sports was founded based on the idea of offering tools for coaches and talent hunters. The founders discovered very quickly the potential in sports broadcasts, and shifted gears. Their system analyzes play during the broadcast and catalogues events automatically, creating clips of each event.
“We process thousands of sporting events a week, from soccer to tennis,” says Port. “The system captures every event in the game – fouls, goals or rebounds – and catalogues them so that they can be pulled up quickly. If Cristiano Ronaldo scores a goal, you just need to enter a relevant search term and the system will quickly pull up and play a video of the moment, or share it on social networks.”
WSC Sports was founded in 2011 by CEO Daniel Shichman, VP-technology Shmulik Yoffe, VP-business development Aviv Arnon and VP-operations Hy Gal. The company has raised $39 million to date from funds and investors in the sports and media industries, including Intel Capital, Eyal Ofer’s O.G. Tech Ventures and Japanese communications firm NTT DOCOMO Ventures, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, and others.
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Its customers include the NBA, the German Bundesliga, tennis league U.S. Open, FIBA, Cricket Australia, WarnerMedia and more. The service is available not just to broadcasters and websites, but also to private customers who want personalized video shorts. The company works based on the software as a service model, offering annual licenses and payments based on use, such as the number of views each video received or the number of videos created by a user.
“There’s no limit to how many videos the system can create and distribute,” says Port. “Instead of a generic summary, every viewer can have the angles and moments of the game that interest him.” The system also enables ad sales targeted to viewers.
In late April, when Israel and many countries were in the middle of lockdowns and the extent of the coronavirus-fueled economic crisis was becoming known, and sports executives began to understand that 2020 was lost, K-League announced that it was selling broadcast rights to 20 countries, mostly in Asia and Europe. Sportsradar, the main holder of rights, said channels in other countries also inquired into the option of broadcasting Korean league games.
K-League managers announced at the beginning of May that the games would be resuming under the most stringent restrictions. Games would be held with no audience, and players would be forbidden from shaking hands, spitting into the grass and celebrating goals.
At a time when other soccer leagues are not playing, “it is a great opportunity to let the world know about Asia’s top league,” said K-League president Kwon Oh-gap to the Guardian.
Kwon sees the crisis’ potential not only to expose the league to new viewers around the world, but to maintain local fans through optimized viewing experiences.
“The Koreans bought the product in order to control broadcasts on TV and to international partners,” says Port. “We were supposed to start working with the league in February but that was frozen. But they took it a step further and digitized their archives. The Koreans are strong mobile and technology users with a young audience and lots of potential for using these tools for improving the viewing experience. The goal is also to monetize videos and provide advertising space,” says Port.
Israel’s Premier League will be returning to play at the end of May, but WSC Sports won’t be part of it.