There was an interesting moment last week when Liverpool’s chairman Peter Moore grappled with a particular question as he addressed a business audience in Merseyside. “How do we re-engage young men who have retreated to the bedroom?” he pondered and proceeded to highlight that kids in today’s age prefer to play Fifa and watch games on TV, rather than attend live sporting events. There is a paradox occurring within the world of sport, that as television coverage and technology becomes more advanced, with its instant replays and different angles of any given incident, the prospect of travelling on match days to football grounds becomes somewhat less alluring to fans who are intolerant to missing out on any action.
There is evidence to suggest that match day tickets and live sporting events are on a path towards obsolescence and with live streaming moving to the forefront of sports broadcasting, this pattern is likely to continue apace. While there is a certain sense of irony in Moore’s analysis, in that during his time working in Silicon Valley, he developed the Fifa game whilst working for Electronic Arts, his view that the match day experience of a fan should have a greater appeal and breadth of services is certainly a valid one.
With sports broadcasting proliferating across digital mediums, fans are bracing themselves for an increased access to VR technologies. In theory, this would only enhance the experience of watching live sport from home, enabling supporters to undergo an immersive experience of events. For instance, the development of headsets will allow for a 360-degree perspective of a game, close-ups of their favourite players or moments such as a referee explaining a decision or the dressing room before and after a game.
Having grown up with the luxury of attending Premier League matches on a weekly basis, the day out and the overall experience of it will always take precedence over the expansive offering of TV coverage today. Moreover, the very notion of family and friends sat together, each watching events unfold in front of them through their own personal headset seems quite frankly unpalatable. It creates an unsettling sense of estrangement, which is at odds with the very basis of being a supporter of a club, which is something inherently social. That being so, the onus falls onto the owners of football clubs to offer a more compelling match-day experience which is consistent with the needs and desires of the modern day fan in the technology-driven society of today and to offer tickets at a more reasonable and accessible price.
Across the pond, NFL clubs in the States have already been confronted with declining numbers in turnstiles, which in 2017 reached record lows. Since then, some clubs have endeavoured to find a solution. The opening of the $1.6 billion dollar stadium Mercedes-Benz Stadium played a key role in reversing the fortunes of its tenants, the Atlanta Falcons, who have not only invested in its architecture but also its tech. They partnered with IBM, the giant technology solutions Company and the entire infrastructure has been designed in the interest of serving the idea of fan engagement and offers an improved service to attendees of NFL matches.
Ben Brillat, IBM’s Company’s global chief technology architect, stressed the importance of centring the new stadium on the needs of the modern day football fan, facilitating the kind of seamless and enjoyable experience they demand. “You need to have a very compelling experience at the stadium to get people out of their homes and into the building. The competition is ever in-creasing as we get a better and better [sports] experience delivered on the iPhone, smartphone, etc, as well,” he asserted in an interview last week with SportsPro.
Accordingly, they have developed a phone application for the tenants and visitors of the new stadium, through which a fan can access a personalised roadmap on match day, electronic parking provision, match day e-tickets, as well as a real-time AI platform which allows individuals to navigate the colossus 75,000 seat stadium. Their investments were justified during the post-season when attendances were in excess of 74,000 and the appeal of the club’s brand has never been greater.
Premier League clubs take a leaf out of the Atlanta Falcons’ book, and they apply these tactics locally with the purpose of making English football grounds more compatible with the technological needs of fans and making match day an easier and more effortless experience.
As football itself becomes more invested in technology, with VAR (Video Assistant Referee) slowly becoming part of the natural landscape of the sport, there is a greater desire on the part of fans to stay informed on what is happening on the pitch, through in-depth analyses, various angles on incidents and high-quality commentary to inform their views. As a consequence this advanced coverage in broadcast, as well as social media, we have reached a stage where footballing debate is more opinionated than ever, as a result of this greater connectivity. Expressing opinions vehemently on incidents, informed by extensive angles and the use of second screens on mobiles is part of the experience of fans today.
Thus, unsurprisingly, match day tickets are viewed as less desirable and individuals may prefer to watch a game on their TV screens, to the tune of Gary Neville whilst they tweet their friends and passionately dispute ongoings. As Peter Moore indicated, new methods must be devised to enhance the experience of live sports, and his view was that football must turn to technology and eSports if it is to allure the modern fan.
Traditional stadiums are unfit to compete in this marketplace, where technology should ideally be embedded into the infrastructure. In that context, the construction of several new gladiatorial arenas in the Premier League which, were funded partly by the advent of significant TV rights deals, such as The Emirates and that of Tottenham Hotspur, due to open next month, as well expansions which have taken place at Anfield, Manchester City’s Etihad and Wolves’ Molineux, perhaps may have been premature. Although these new structures are formidable in size and facilitate a comfortable match day experience, owners may have missed a trick by not building them with these new technologies at its nucleus.
The solution, as exemplified by the Mercedes Benz Stadium in the US, is to invest in smartphone apps and technologies, which allow for new dimensions to the visual experience within stadiums. AR (Augmented Reality) could offer this, as it was conceived to mix reality with computer graphics and therefore could generate real-time statistics and various camera angles on a smartphone, thereby empowering fans and pandering to their needs. AR, unlike VR, could be used in a far more interactive way through mobile, upholding that social and shared aspect of sport, as opposed to completely immersing oneself in a headset, giving it an advantage over the latter.
eSports is a phenomenon on the rise in the world of sport. In essence, it is a fancy name to describe people sat on a chair or a sofa competing at a professional level through online video games. While it may be hard for fans of more traditional sports to reconcile with, it should be taken seriously as another means of engaging young fans of the Premier League. Manchester City and West Ham United were the first British sides to pick up on this and responded by setting up their own Fifa players to compete in eSport competitions.
Across in Denmark, FC Copenhagen has immersed itself deep within the eSport market and constructed their brand around it. Christian Sorensen, the CEO of FC Copenhagen who pioneered the club’s foray into eSports spoke with Sky Sports in March about this move “This is an investment, we’re not quite sure when we’ll see it start paying back but I am sure it will. Some of this is within my hands such as securing sponsors and building the structure But a lot of the things towards eSports being a commercially attractive business is about the structural changes as well.”
In doing so, FC Copenhagen has managed to achieve a better insight and understanding of their local community, which helps to preclude the sight of empty seats and a lack of interest in their club.
The nature of fandom in sport, either by attending live matches or watching on the TV, has always struck me as something which is somewhat immutable and resistant to that all-encompassing effect of technology being played out in the rest of society. Yet, gradually we are beginning to witness tech play a greater role in dictating how the modern fan consumes sport, reflecting new desires and behaviours in society. The examples of the Atlanta Falcons, with their state-of-the-art arena with technology at its core and FC Copenhagen’s investment in the eSports market are casing evidence of how Premier League clubs ought to adapt to the modern world of sport and fandom, and the successful application of these methods could go a long way in reversing the tide which has rendered TV coverage a more desirable experience than attending major sporting events for many.
When Sky entered the fray for Premier League rights in 1990, it sought to reproduce, and even better, the match day experience within the homes of subscribers. The pendulum is swinging in favour of digital broadcasters, notably the likes of Eleven Sports, Perform Group, Amazon and Facebook, who are better placed to leverage on these changes to the marketplace. However, the offering of live sport is languishing behind the two, as the purpose of live events has gone above and beyond simply watching the match. Clubs now must attempt to emulate the home experience through the use of digital innovation, data, mobile apps, player statistics, self-service refreshments and crucially, affordable pricing, all of which appeal to the tech-savvy supporters of today.