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Cyber smart experiences key to a thriving sports economy in Africa

Microsoft’s latest Cyber Signals report offers unique insight into the complexities involved in hosting large sporting events in the digital age

It was inspiring to see how quickly South Africa was gripped by netball fever with the hosting of the continent’s first-ever Netball World Cup in Cape Town this year. Africa’s potential to become a thriving sports economy is once again under the spotlight, raising important questions around what it would take for the continent to realise this potential – particularly in the digital age when arguably the greatest challenge facing host nations is to roll out a seamless and secure digital experience.

Beyond the buzz and excitement, sports tourism can ignite significant economic benefits – from increased tourism and infrastructure development to greater media exposure. In fact, it’s estimated that hosting the FIFA World Cup 2022™ boosted Qatar’s economy by eight percent when compared with the same period in 2021. The overall impact on social development and inclusion can be so far reaching that the UN recognises sport as an important contributor to Africa’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Countries across the continent have demonstrated the appetite to host future World Cup events. While South Africa has thrown its hat in the ring to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2027™, Morocco’s joint bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2030™ could see the tournament return to Africa for a second time. Just earlier this year, Nigeria’s minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Raji Fashola, urged the country to place its own bid to host the FIFA World Cup.

The interest in developing Africa’s sports economy is not surprising – the continent is ideally placed to become a popular sports destination with its growing young population and flourishing startup scene.

And in many ways the key to realising this potential lies with technology.

Over the past ten years or so technology has played a critical role in the evolution of sports events – particularly in the case of large-scale live tournaments. Take football as an example – running a stadium during a live event can almost be as complicated as running a small city. To manage this level of complexity and even more importantly – an increasing number of high-level threats – it has become necessary to draw on the power of cloud computing.

Key learnings from 2022

Microsoft’s latest Cyber Signals report offers clear insight into just how diverse and complex the threats facing large sporting events are in the digital age. These learnings are based on our telemetry from delivering cybersecurity support to critical infrastructure facilities during Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022™.

Events such as the World Cup introduce a level of cyber risk that simply doesn’t exist in other environments. Not only do venue IT systems contain hundreds of known and unknown vulnerabilities that allow threats actors to target critical business services such as point of sale and visitor devices, but sports teams and attendees also hold a wealth of highly valuable information that is very attractive to cybercriminals.

At the same time, venues are under pressure to deliver more seamless and engaging fan experiences across a multitude of touchpoints – from social media to ticketing platforms, scoring systems and electronic signage. To develop these experiences, hosts and venues must collaborate with partners and vendors across networks, resulting in a vast number of connected devices and interconnected networks in these environments. This ultimately makes it difficult for organisers to gain visibility of all devices and data flow across the network, expanding the attack surface.

Mitigating against this magnitude of cyber threat requires next level cyber smart operations. To put this into context, Microsoft ultimately analysed over 634.6 million events while providing cybersecurity for Qatari facilities and organisations throughout November and December of 2022.

So, how can the event organisers from aspiring host nations ensure their cybersecurity is up to the task?

First and foremost, they should prioritise the implementation of a comprehensive and multi-layered security framework powered by the cloud. This includes deploying firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and strong encryption protocols to fortify the network against unauthorised access and data breaches.

Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments should also be conducted to identify and address any weaknesses within the network infrastructure.

In addition, user awareness and training programmes are crucial to educate employees and stakeholders about cybersecurity best practices, such as recognising phishing emails, using multifactor authentication or passwordless protection, and avoiding suspicious links or downloads.

Finally, it is essential to partner with reputable cybersecurity firms to continuously monitor network traffic, detect potential threats in real-time, and respond swiftly to any security incidents.

Building on the momentum of the last year, Africa has a clear opportunity to establish a thriving sports economy. When it comes to global sporting events, the pressure to deliver a smooth, safe experience on the world stage introduces new stakes for local hosts and facilities. But in deploying the right technology and working with experienced partners, Africa can deliver the kind of digital experiences needed to fast-track its journey to become a world-class sports destination.