SVG Sit-Down: Alibaba Cloud’s Joey Tan on the Olympics, World Cup, and the Future of Sports Media

The company aims to increase its sports presence in China and globally

Over the past year, Alibaba Cloud, the cloud-computing division of the colossal Chinese conglomerate, has made growing its sports portfolio a major priority. This push into the sports market has been headlined in the past six months by major cloud-services deals with the IOC for the Olympics and FIFA for the World Cup. Meanwhile, Alisports, the company’s sports-focused subsidiary, has set its sights on boosting Alibaba’s overall sports footprint both in China and around the globe.

At CES 2018, SVG sat down with Joey Tan, head of global strategic initiatives, Alibaba Cloud International, to discuss the company’s vision for the future of sports and how the cloud plays into it, Alibaba Cloud’s role in the Olympics (and Olympic Channel) and World Cup productions, how fans’ media-consumption habits are changing both in the stadium and on the go, the potential of AR and VR for sports, and where he sees AI and cloud technology headed.

Alibaba Cloud’s Joey Tan: “[In the sports market], all the federations, at some point or other in their life cycle, connect with the Olympics, so we are starting from there.”

What are the Alibaba’s goals when it comes to growing its presence in sports, and what role does Alibaba Cloud play in achieving those goals?
It starts with our founder’s grand vision. Jack Ma has been pushing very much for this transformation. We believe, in the next 30-50 years, technology’s going to play a critical role in our everyday lives. So we need to start seriously looking into how technology and sports can bring out a wholesome and immersive experience for all the spectators. That’s one of the key reasons we are now focusing on sports.

To do that, we are taking a top-down approach. [In the sports market], all the federations, at some point or other in their life cycle, connect with the Olympics, so we are starting from there. The Alibaba Group’s sports movement is driven very much by the Olympics.

There are three categories that Alibaba Cloud serves [in this space]: cloud computing, [streaming] channels, and ecommerce. For cloud[-computing] infrastructure, there’s Alibaba Cloud. For the [streaming] channels, there’s Youku [Tudou], which is a technology that rides on Alibaba Cloud. And then ecommerce is our B2B [service] that also rides on Alibaba Cloud. We are vertically [integrated], and we are also the foundation provider for all these [categories].

Tell us a bit more on Alibaba’s partnership with the IOC and its role in the Olympic Channel operation?
If you talk about the technology, there are two perspectives. First, we’ve been working with Olympic Broadcasting Services on innovations, such as multiscreen experiences. However, if you look at how the Olympics generates its revenue, [it’s primarily by] selling the rights to the broadcasters. [As a result], when we, as a newcomer, are looking to make a transformation, not every broadcaster is going to be ready right away. So we are working to find the right balance between enhancing the audience experience and not upsetting the broadcasters.

Second, we are also focused on the onsite experience [at the stadium]. If you buy a ticket and go onsite, then you should have a well-connected experience that will be very much differentiated from watching on TV at home. That is where the old world of broadcasting and the new world of broadcasting come together. Olympic Channel falls right into the new world while still supporting the [traditional broadcast model].

What do you mean by a “differentiated” experience at the stadium? How can sports organizations achieve this differentiation?
[For differentiating] the sports-media or sports-video experience, we believe that the lowest-hanging fruit today is to allow the individual — the spectator, if you may — to have the ability to customize and decide what kind of video stream they would like to see. Traditionally, what happens is that the broadcasters will be deciding the [camera] angle for you and who you will be looking at. But things are shifting, and I think you will soon begin to see the [growth of] volumetric media, VR, and AR, where the spectator now has command and control over what they would like to experience from the media.

How do see rapidly changing video- and media-consumption habits changing the sports industry?
I think the expectation of how the community participates in a sports event has changed. It used to be, I go to a stadium, I watch a sport, and I get to be part of the community. But, as people get online and get connected more, they want to feel they are part of the games, even before they take place. So all the way from posting on Facebook and social [networks] to the way you buy tickets, the journey starts way before the game event itself.

Looking at the Olympics, [the IOC] has been trying to increase the participation of the general population, [rather than] it just being popular every two or four years. Between the Games, the engagement drops and then picks up again. That creates a declining trend, and people are beginning to [ask], when it’s so costly to organize the Games and the participation of the general population is decreasing, why should we do it? By bringing out our transformative technology and our vision of being inclusive, engaging young people and millennials, we can help the Olympics transform and be at the forefront of engaging with younger populations. The two of us together and create a marriage [made] in heaven.

How can Alibaba Cloud enable next-gen services like VR and AR from a technology and infrastructure perspective?
The technical definition of cloud is focused on infrastructure as a service, software as a service, and platform as a service. We want to build layers on top of that. And we want solutions that very much cater to the sports arena and sports experience. So, [in terms of] AR and VR, we work very closely with many of our partners, including hardware manufacturers of goggles and of 3D experiences on apps. They run on our vast computing power.

Beyond that, we are also pushing this computing power nearer to where the action is. In the past, [rightsholders] have had to have very good high[-bandwidth] connections to the nearest data centers, which may not be in a country where the Games are held. We’ve been working very closely with the network providers to push out what we call “edge-computing nodes.” [These provide] the ability to bring the vast cloud-computing power nearer the action to shorten the latency and technical challenges of VR and AR. In fact, come February, we’ll be making a few announcements on that front.

You spoke on a panel here at CES focused on the future of “smart venues” and how they relate to “smart cities.” Can you explain why you believe smart venues are key to the future of the sports-media industry?
When it comes to sports, we do not see that as a means to an end. We are looking to create an immersive experience for the people using technology. I think smarter venues actually create a catalyst for the city to become smarter. With that acceleration at the venue, the primary growth area will be the whole city. And the [goal] here is that, if we can have so much computing power on our hands, knowing everything that’s going on in the city, it’s not going to benefit just the stadium and the sport; it’s going to benefit everybody and every industry in the whole city. I think that leveraging our vast experience dealing with huge amounts of data and understanding consumer behavior, [especially] millennials, can be transformative in these venues and these cities. The lowest-hanging fruit will be leveraging sports and marrying that with technology, and that will then have an impact in the city where it happens.

How do you see cloud-based technology and services evolving in the next two to three years?
The cloud is very much dependent on a few basic technology enablers, connectivity being one of them: you can’t have a cloud without good connectivity. And to get connectivity and the experience of connectivity is very narrow and singular. Everything that we talk about in terms of connectivity today goes through the phone; the phone is the only way that you’re connected to the outside world.

We believe that, in the next few years, you begin to realize that, as a human being going through this physical world, the connection that you have with the internet world is not just going to be through the phone. We are talking shoes being connected, shirts could be connected, the glasses that you wear will be connected — without having to [tether] yourself to a phone or an app.

That immediate connectivity between physical objects in this world and the IoT world is going to drive innovation. And the amount of data that we’re going to collect and the insights that we can gather from that data is going to be huge [compared with what we capture] today. I think most of the cloud providers today are no longer looking at themselves as a provider of easily accessible computing power; those are the basics. We see a lot of innovation and deep research going into managing a huge amount of data, transmitting large amounts of data, and storing huge amounts of data. I think transmitting, computing, and storing are the three things that [will] drive the future of cloud computing.

And how do you see artificial intelligence playing into that evolution of the cloud?
I think AI will be a natural evolution. Once you have enough data and enough computing power, it’s just going to happen. What matters more isn’t just AI but the experience that AI brings to you. Today, AI is very singular: it is coming off a device and doing a single function, [such as] translating English to Chinese or telling you where to go. But [in the future], AI is going to be doing things that you are not even aware of to make you more comfortable and give you that immersive experience. What will be so magical is that it will be transparent to the user. There will be much technological power and innovation in the future, so focusing on what makes you happy and what makes you healthy will drive us to understand where our growth areas will be.

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