Playing the long game – sports tech in 2016

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Playing the long game first appeared on Sport Techie

Football financials are simply mind-boggling. The latest Sky and BT Sport live TV rights package is worth a whopping £5.14 billion over the next three years. It’s just been announced that each Premier League club will receive an eye-watering £96 million from TV revenue and the Premier League. The 2016-17 Premier League champions will pick up a cake-topping £37.5 million bonus. Even the bottom club will take home £14 million – and that’s before the £32.5 million parachute payment in the first season kicks in to make life in the Championship easier!

It was against this humble backdrop that the RTS talk on Stadium Management and Technology took place, featuring Tim Dudding from Championship high-fliers Brighton & Hove Albion FC alongside Ian Rose from networking and infrastructure giant, Huawei Technologies.

The premise of the talk was twofold: using technology to enhance the fans’ match-day experience and learning how to ’monetise’ those fans.

The dark days
Not so long back, the only technology in grounds was a crackly public address system and a scoreboard. But other demands on fans’ wallets and a better live and catch-up TV experience have meant that clubs have had to adapt to survive.

It’s down to production manager Dudding to drive fan engagement and deliver on the Brighton & Hove FC mission of “making the match-day experience the best it can possibly be, regardless of the match.”

No easy task, as football fans are a notoriously demanding lot. “In the early days, I remember when all the screens went black. I was treated to 30,000 people chanting, ‘We want our telly back.’ Now that’s pressure,” he recalled.

Augmenting the fan experience
Things have moved on a lot since those (literally) dark days. And it’s not just Brighton’s new AMEX Community stadium with its 320 TVs, two giant screens and broadcast quality video production that has helped – featuring player interviews, highlights and replays. It’s increasingly about the personalised fan experience, driven by the smartphone and enabled by a high-density WiFi network. “Over a third of our fans are using our peer-to-peer network, our Seagulls app, for exclusive interviews, commentary and video match highlights,” said Dudding. Bottom line, this encourages them to stay pre- and post-game, and spend more money behind the bar or in the club shop.

Dudding was quick to add a caveat. “Technology needs to augment rather than alter the fan experience. Big screens clearly add to it but do we really want fans looking at their phones rather than watching the game? Thinking carefully about this will be a key driver in how far we push this technology.”

Changing the mindset
Aside from the obvious technical challenges of enabling 30,000+ fans to get on their phones at the same time to tell their other half they’ll be late or more likely send video clips to their mates, Huawei’s Rose pointed out a key cultural difference between US and UK fans. “In the US, fans make a day of the sports event – from the tailgate party to the game itself – giving clubs plenty of opportunity to engage with them. In the UK, fans usually arrive half an hour before the game, have a quick pint and then rush to the exit at the final whistle.” Changing this mindset will be central to extending the match-day experience.

It’s all about the data
The neat apps certainly play their part in augmenting the overall fan experience. But right now, the big opportunity for WiFi-enabled clubs is their marketable fan database. Understanding fan behaviours, preferences and demographics is a goldmine waiting to be panned, and a prime opportunity for sponsors and advertisers. That’s the real value to clubs.

The big challenge is to persuade clubs of the likely return on investment in a WiFi infrastructure. If you look at the figures, it costs in the region of £750,000 to kit out and manage a WiFi connected stadium with 30,000 seats. Now that’s fine if you’re rolling in cash like the big Premier League boys. But as Dudding pointed out, “that could be a new striker for smaller clubs. You need an understanding chairman, who is in it for the long game.”

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