Are technological advances in football detrimental to the game?

When I was asked to write my first blog – this one – I thought to myself “what do I have to say that people would want to hear about?! What can I discuss that could combine a passion of mine and technology?”

The answer; football!

Love it or hate it, that one word arguably brings out more emotion and feeling than anything else on the planet.

Not only is it a sport, but it’s also one of the largest businesses in the world. Deloitte revealed in a 2018 report that European football alone is now worth £22 billion annually, with the ‘big five’ European leagues generating £12.6 billion of revenue per year. Not bad for a couple of lads in shorts kicking about a ball!

Late to the game

Although it’s one of the most popular sports in the world, football has kicked off late in regard to its use of technology on the pitch. When you see that technology such as Hawk-Eye has been used in cricket since 2001, and in tennis since 2006, the question arises - why has it taken so long?

In 2012, the International Football Association Board officially approved the use of goal line technology; its integration having been opposed by the sport’s authorities. However, due to its expense – around £250,000 per stadium – it’s a luxury only afforded to top leagues and major competitions, remaining financially out of reach for smaller clubs. Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology has also recently been trialled, but like goal line technology, its cost is prohibitive for most football grounds outside the big teams who may pay their star player more than that per week.

Some believe that by introducing more technology the romance of football will die. The number of hours spent discussing “was the player offside?” or “did the ball cross the line?” will fade out I guess, and in my eyes that will be a shame. Is it an own goal or is it time for change?

Improving sports fans experience

As well as using technology to affect the outcome of a game, it is now being used to improve a sports fans experience within the ground, and that goes for any sports stadium or arena. This is where I believe that technology will score with the masses. It gives the venue a free kick to align the customer experience with marketing and develop more revenue.

For example, stadiums have rolled out Point of Service (POS) apps that allow fans to order food and merchandise of their choice to be delivered directly to their seats. Imagine not having to wade through the crowds to queue up for a pie and drinks, then struggling back to your seat without dribbling half of it out of the cup along with way and suffering the penalty of missing the first 10 minutes of the second half!

Other clever apps can tackle the challenge of finding your way around a stadium, allow you to find the shortest toilet queue or even net that upgraded free seat you have your eye on from way up in the gods. New technology is changing the way we engage within a venue, ensuring the customer experience continually hits the back of the net for all the right reasons, no matter what happens down on the pitch.

Reliant on quality connections

Of course, all of these apps are great, but without the right connectivity clubs will have to remain bottom of the league, certainly in terms of delivering a great customer experience for today’s tech savvy fans. Being able to get online wherever you are – there are still some exceptions – is expected in today’s digital world, and not just for fans, but for the media and vendors too. Journalists covering sporting events are expected to file regular updates, while for vendors our increasingly cashless society means that contactless payment is key, as old school manual credit card imprinters just don’t cut it anymore.

Ensuring good connectivity for customers and visitors isn’t just confined to the sporting arena, it should be a prerequisite of any customer facing business as it can enhance the visitor experience and help promote the business.

At Converged, our strap line is “everything starts with a connection”. Whether it is goal line technology, VAR or POS, they all have one thing in common; they rely on a fast, secure and reliable Internet connection.

AFC Commentary

Our local Premier League club, knows this only too well. Here’s what Lee Forsyth, Aberdeen FC’s IT Support Analyst, had to say.

“Connectivity is key to a stadium as we are relying on it for many systems, including but not limited to ticketing and retail,” said Lee. “We require 100% uptime as our ticketing and retail databases rely on a connection to our eCommerce platforms.”

Pittodrie recently became the second stadium in the UK, after Wembley, to offer mobile ticketing using NFC (near field communication) as opposed to barcodes.

Lee added: “Working with our partners Fortress GB and Apple, the trial is ongoing with season ticket holders in both the Richard Donald Stand and Main Stand who now have the capability to access Pittodrie through their mobile phone. We are looking to roll this out to the rest of the stadium before the end of this season. The infrastructure to support this solution relies on a connection to external servers. Connectivity again is key here.”

Kingsford brings new opportunities

Looking ahead, construction of the state-of-the-art £40 million new home for the Dons at Kingsford will provide many opportunities to improve the fan experience through technology. As with any new construction project, including the IT infrastructure requirements in the design process can pay dividends over the longer term.

“Ideally, we will have full ePOS deployment in the kiosks around the stadium, allowing us the option to utilise technologies such as eCash, contactless and mobile payments. Some solutions allow fans to purchase their food/drinks on an app, then collect at the kiosk which will reduce queue times. And we are aware of “order to your seat” capabilities, but this requires some thought into whether this is practical in a football stadium in Scotland. We have many opportunities at the new stadium that will allow us to provide a quality matchday experience.”

It's an exciting time for sports fans. In addition to supporting their local club and enjoying their obligatory pie, the whole passage of play from ticket purchase through to finding your car after the game is being transformed. Whatever people think about technology in football, it’s here and the likelihood is that it will remain onside for a long time to come.

Willie Miller

Willie Miller