Recently, when I crossed the finish line for an annual fundraiser alongside numerous physically challenged cyclists in San Diego after a grueling seven-day bike ride from San Francisco, I witnessed the power of sports as an inclusionary metaphor for life. Much like a caring community that fosters harmony, a sporting ecosystem that nurtures inclusivity can work wonders for individuals, society, and businesses.

Innovative brands have realized this.

Zwift – a massive multiplayer online cycling and running program that enables users to train, interact, and compete in a virtual world – recently embraced inclusion by adding a hand-cycling category that allows physically challenged athletes to race in the metaverse alongside able-bodied athletes. And it’s not alone. Earlier last year, Degree Deodorant hosted the world’s first marathon on the Decentraland metaverse with a 26.2-mile picturesque course along the platform’s Vegas City Sports Quarter district, which reflected a more inclusive landscape with structures such as ramps for wheelchair users.

But How Does This Help Businesses?

Research shows that inclusion strengthens social networks, reduces barriers, and increases trust to generate economic benefits. Businesses that incorporate inclusivity are more likely to make bolder and better decisions. Meanwhile, sports possess the ability to transcend linguistic, cultural, social, and, now, physical barriers. With the metaverse looming large over the foreseeable horizon, a convergence of sports and inclusivity could serve as a lighthouse for business and society – a truly mouthwatering prospect of things to come. But is there an addressable market for this to make business sense?

There are 5.07 billion active Internet users in the world today – 50,000 already use Web 3.0 virtual worlds and 12% of U.S. Internet users are interested in using the metaverse. Digital avatars contribute immensely to the virtual experience and are increasing becoming ubiquitous.

Per the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.8% of the U.S. population in 2019 registered as people with disabilities. The European equivalent that year was 39 million – Great Britain alone accounted for 11 million – while Asia had an estimated 135 million people with disabilities. The global fitness platform market for the disabled alone is expected to hit US$1.41 billion this year, a CAGR of 23.9%.

So, there is clearly an audience for this type of inclusivity. But why bother the metaverse with it?

Answering the Community’s Call

Digital avatars contribute immensely to the virtual experience and are increasing becoming abundant. In fact, online communities are demanding greater inclusivity. A study revealed a general underrepresentation of people with disabilities and women, alongside an inaccurate representation of online identities. With 57% of Gen Z metaverse-gamers rating their penchant for in-game self-expression as higher than in real life, developers are taking note. Last June, Meta announced the launch of wheelchairs, over-the-ear hearing aids, and cochlear implants for its avatars. As the metaverse takes shape, inclusivity features prominently on the social media giant’s development agenda.

And it is just not Meta. Companies developing gaming consoles are building for inclusivity as well. From Xbox Adaptive Controllers to community-built modified controllers, features to assist those with mobility, hearing, and impaired vision are gaining prominence. Gaming companies are also modifying popular games for impaired gamers. For instance, The Last of Us II – the game from the company Naughty Dog – now has play modes for deaf, blind, and mobility-impaired gamers. Likewise, colorblind players can now enjoy the hugely popular Call of Duty: Black Ops thanks to a new mode that customizes the game’s display to create a spectrum of options to suit a player’s specific need.

Clearly, the metaverse can be a great enabler of inclusivity and open new doors.

A New Vista of Inclusion Opportunities Powered by the Metaverse

Imagine a metaverse loaded with features that welcome all to coexist in the surrounds of a safe virtual haven. Events like the marathon and my annual cycling event can become regular features in the metaverse, much like those in the real world today.

Add cutting-edge sports performance analytics from SAP Sports One to this and challenged participants can receive a significant boost for their efforts of being recognized as competitive athletes. In fact, in the highly competitive world of Paralympics where every inch matters, teams that can get their hands on SAP Sports One can integrate data from various sources and study consolidated insights from all the athletes on their team with real-time analytics. At the highest levels, where the gold medal is decided by seconds, even challenged athletes deserve the very best and can benefit from what cutting-edge performance analytics can offer. In the esports world today, organizations like Team Liquid readily use SAP data and analytics solutions such as SAP HANA Cloud and SAP Analytics Cloud to help make split second decisions and heighten their performances on the professional circuit.

With such precedents in place, the metaverse becomes a prime greenfield of opportunities and facilitates the development of an environment where inclusivity can genuinely thrive. This, coupled with gamification and play-to-earn GameFi models, can lead to the creation of an ecosystem in the metaverse that nurtures a virtual economy with limitless horizons. Brands and technology companies that are building an inclusive metaverse will enjoy numerous revenue-generating avenues and enhanced social agendas.

We are at the dawn of exciting times for sure.

To learn how software helps clubs and organizations digitalize sports performance management, visit sap.com/sports-one.

Richard Whittington is senior vice president of Sports, Media, & Entertainment at SAP.