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A post by
December 3, 2018

How technology is improving the game-day experience

How technology is improving the game-day experience

Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash

A post by
December 3, 2018
min read

The game used to be the only attraction. In conversations with a few people at Ostmodern, I learned about their personal experiences attending football matches in the past — before smartphones were a thing.

Buying a ticket would often involve a trip to the stadium’s box office, or ringing to find out about available seats. On match day, they would meet friends to make the trip together and arrive at the stadium in time for the team warm-ups. Before the match started, they would eventually get a drink at the bar after having been annoyed by the long queues.

Then they would sit down to read the match-day programmes and magazines they had bought on the street or on the stadium concourse. Official match-day programmes are still common in football matches today. (These were even mandatory in England until this year.)

These magazines would be how they read club news, exclusive interviews with players and staff. The people I interviewed talked about taking them home as memorabilia.

While waiting for the match to start, they typically discussed the news with their friends or spoke about this with the people sitting around them. No selfies were being taken around the ground, although the presence of stand-alone cameras was much more prevalent than today to capture memories.

At half-time, the only time there’s a break in the game (a fact which is entirely different in American sports), everyone would go to the WCs, grab another drink or a snack, and get annoyed by the long queues again.

When the match ended, the only thing to do really was to leave the stadium and head to a pub with their mates.

Match day is very different now. Some of the changes noticed by the people I talked to included the feeling that there’s ‘almost too much’ technology surrounding the main event. This encompasses the week leading up to it, as well.

Besides listening to a sports station on loop every day, there’s a constant news feed on social media, TV networks offer live commentary and pre-game analysis, and there are dozens of podcasts and fan pages to check up on.

Inside the stadium, however, the biggest changes are in fan behaviour.

Photo by Emma Dau on Unsplash

As smartphones came along, so did the rise of social media, selfies, and real-time online sports betting.

It is now a common practice for fans to check on other match results and talk about this during the game they’re watching live. This is heightened by the number of TV screens in the stadium bars, for example, showing other matches (and replays from inside the ground) so fans don’t miss out.

While there are many reasons why sports fans would rather watch a game at a venue (wanting to be close to the action, memories, etc), there are also good reasons for them to watch it at home. Ultra-high definition TVs allow them to observe the action from almost every possible angle, there are no parking and queue nightmares or other minor inconveniences and they can watch countless matches thanks to online streaming.

When you add a comfy seat to this mix, and deduct the price of a ticket, it becomes easier to understand why attendance numbers have been decreasing — and why these venues need to find answers for it.

The American example of high-tech venues

Touching briefly on American sports culture, there are some important differences between the big 4 leagues (the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB) and football (what US fans might call soccer). The main distinction is that US games last longer, and all of them allow for several timeouts. If the games are televised, they also have ‘television timeouts’. Between these timeouts, there are also half-time breaks and end-of-period breaks.

Much of this has increased the need for venues to entertain their fans. The rationale is that if a game can last nearly a full day and there are lots of interruptions, the crowd should not have any opportunity to get bored.

Photo by Rajiv Perera on Unsplash

There are cheerleaders, DJ sets, half-time shows, fans competing for prizes, all-age dance crews, cameras that show fans dancing in the big screens, and much more.

'People go to live games like they go to the cinema. They expect to be highly entertained. Technology has a big role in this, and there’s a lot more to be done with it to improve fan experiences.'

42 new stadia are set to be inaugurated in 2019, 12 alone in the USA. There, 4 new indoor arenas with a basketball focus will open — including the new home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, the Chase Center.

It is estimated that the Warriors’ new arena will cost around $1 billion. The technology for enhancing the fan experience is expected to be extremely ‘interactive’. Fans will be able to take photos and shoot videos to be shown on the scoreboards, and they will have access to real-time game data and statistics.

The team has asked for fan input in this. Before the Chase Center opens next season, they’ve created #Fannovate, a way for fans to answer the question ‘How can technology and innovation change your fan experience?’ during this season on social media. They’ve already experimented with virtual reality in their current arena in Oakland:

Though their new venue will surely develop better technological fan experiences in years to come, their home since 1971 (the second oldest in the NBA) has still found ways to engage their fans through existing technology.

The Warriors mobile app sends push notifications to fans when they enter the arena, welcoming them with unique content for the game (as opposed to paper programmes). As they get to the top of the escalator, fans receive a message giving them the option to upgrade their seats. An impression of the full game-day experience can be read here.

'The mission is to provide the best fan experience that’s ever been provided before. Again, where technology can enhance that. We want it to be additive, but it’s not the be-all, end-all by any means.' Rick Welts, President and COO of the GSW.

Using technology to connect with fans

Meanwhile in the UK, Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium is being advertised as the “the greatest that’s ever been built”. (The joke of course is if it ever gets built.)

It will feature a retractable grass pitch; the world’s first rooftop ‘skywalk’ attraction for visitors on a football stadium (for a stroll across a transparent glass bridge that offers unique views of the pitch below); the UK’s largest HD screens; and apparently the biggest club store and largest bar in Europe.

Perhaps more important features will be its 1800 smaller-than-giant HD TVs, its high density mobile connectivity and free WiFi available in the ground.

Club apps that are customised for the stadium fan, beacons, betting apps, and access to social media — especially for younger fans — are more and more important when accounting for successes in fan experiences while watching a match.

In 2018, fans expect a certain quality of connectivity anywhere they go, and they should be able to share all special moments during the event with their friends and family.

Many of the people I talked to spoke of the internet reception at the football stadia they attend as being consistently terrible.

Technology is essential for facilitating any transactions inside the stadium, such as the cashless experience Tottenham will provide. Anything to speed up service — all the fan should need is a contactless card or a mobile phone to purchase anything inside.

In the US, super fast wifi isn’t an option anymore as much as it is a requirement, and new arenas such as the Chase Center are finding other areas where they can improve fan experiences.

Tottenham’s plans are still nowhere near facilities such as those already implemented in a series of venues in the US, among them:

  • beacons indicating the route to the shortest queue to the WCs;
  • app features showing attending fans replays directly from floor-level cameras in the stadium;
  • the possibility to order food from venue restaurants and have it delivered to their seats;
  • and a guide to the car park entrance closest to their seats.

All of these are available in Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, which is already 4 years old.

Another example is the AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, where an app alerts fans to push a button that reads ‘unite this house’, which causes their phones to vibrate and their cameras to flash in unison. The ‘wave’ goes digital.

The goal is to support, not distract, the fan

Many clubs, sports leagues and stadium owners want to improve the game day experience for more connected fans, hoping to attract them to games with promises to meet and exceed their expectations.

More casual fans or tourists might go to a game because they want to see a team they follow or that is popular, but these personalised and unique features, entertainment, and high connectivity, have the power to influence their decision to come back.

The big fans that choose to stay in the comfort of their homes might see more value in a season ticket than they have in a long time.

Photo by Ryan on Unsplash

Tottenham is closer to the American fan idea of entertainment than most football clubs in Europe, having conceived areas for pop-up experiences, Legend appearances, a cheese room, and a microbrewery.

Still, we have to wonder if the smartphone-carrying, tech-dependent younger fans won’t ask much more than this in years to come — and how much that will influence attendance numbers. And if given the option now, would they choose a microbrewery over ordering food from their seats and having it delivered to them?

Our interest is in creating engaging experiences rather than purely focusing on the benefits of the technology in themselves. It’s not about the possibilities of new technology but how you use it. You don’t want to create a digital product that’s going to disengage or distance fans from the main action that’s unfolding in front of them.

Thrilling local derbies, where the crowd is excited and the players are locked in a contest of determination and technique, illustrate why nothing can ever quite beat the immediacy and exhilaration of being pitch-side.

Technology must be able to intensify, not detract from, the live experience in the stadium.

This article was written by Alex Gandra

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