Digital technology has effectively marked its footprint in every facet of modern existence, not least the competitive international sports industry. To understand the nature and implications of this influence, Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) gathered scholars and professionals from around the world for a one-day conference on "The Digital Transformation of Sport Media.”

“The topic of today’s conference covers two industries that have been intertwined since each was born in the middle of the nineteenth century to the same parents: urbanization and industrialization,” said Craig LaMay, acting dean of NU-Q. “Media and sports are also, of course, two essential industries in Qatar’s transition toward a post-fossil fuel future, and they seek to shift the narrative of sport history from one that is overwhelmingly based on Western sources.”

Susan Brownell, an internationally recognized expert on sports and professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis delivered the keynote speech, "The Pursuit of Soft Power Through Sport Mega-Events: China's Lessons for Qatar." Drawing on her award-winning work on Chinese sports and the Olympic Games, Brownell introduced three overarching themes to the discussion, including the “NGO-ization” of international sports, the rise of communications games, and the pursuit of soft power.

“We might ask why do we even have the expectation that a sport event can improve the national image of a country,” Brownell said. “I think we need to acknowledge that what we have here is a cabal of interest groups who collaborate in convincing the public that sporting events are significant and important, and the media is one of those interest groups, but so are organizing committees, communication firms, and NGOs,” she added.

Brownell, who was a nationally-ranked field athlete in the U.S. and a member of the track team that represented Beijing in the 1986 Chinese National College Games, also addressed the problematic western-centric management of international sports, concluding with key takeaways for Qatar as the country prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

A panel on the “Digital Transformation of Sport and Sports Journalism,” featured a two-part discussion on the current status of both sports and sports media. Though one originated in the pitch and the other in the newsroom, the panel discussed how both are in the data business today.

“What is blatantly obvious is that the digitalization of the fan experience, whether at home or at the event itself, provides an opportunity for capturing data that is significantly valuable to a brand, or a rights holder, or an athlete,” said Róisín O'Shea, head of business development at StubHub UK.

“If you’re not doing anything with that data, then you’re missing out, and it could be the downfall, and has been, of a lot of traditional sports,” adding that more should be done to encourage e-sports entities to assist traditional sports in navigating this new digital terrain 

With biometric data, analytics, and e-sports fundamentally altering the way teams are managed and games are played, the panel also explored the threat of digitization on the worldwide market for sports media rights, particularly through industrial-scale piracy.

The rampant trivialization of women’s sports worldwide characterized the theme of an additional panel on “Sports Media and the Future of Women’s Sport.” Tackling pervasive issues that continue to plague the industry—from less media attention compared to men’s sports to the sexualization of female athletes and journalists, especially in the West—panelists debated the issues at stake in the context of an evolving sports media landscape.

While acknowledging the positive changes brought by civil rights legislation in the last 50 years, particularly in the Western world, which made a greater variety of sports accessible to female athletes, participants addressed the persistence of a male-dominated women’s sports leadership, discriminatory treatment of Muslim women who wear the hijab, and the controversial domain of sex-testing in international sport.

The final panel, “Covering International Sport: Outside the Pitch,” explored the prospects of a future for serious investigative sports journalism and scholarship, and the skills needed to advance them.  

Noting the criticisms routinely leveled against sports journalism, the panel focused on the recent changes that have paved the way for the emergence of first-rate sports news organizations, engagement with topics previously left to scholars, and the movement of sport mega-events such as the Olympics to Asia, among other developments.