In June, the UK Premier League resumed following a three-month hiatus as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. But while fans may have welcomed the restart of the league, one element of the game has been notably absent: the fans. The usual roar of the stadium has been replaced in some games by artificial fan noise.
Earlier in the year, there was some optimism that instant Covid testing may have facilitated the return of fans to football stadiums, with fans originally scheduled to return after 1 October.
However, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has since said that fans may not be able to return to live sporting events until March 2021.
More recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that stadiums will be permitted to open for up to 4000 fans in tier 1 and tier 2 areas, following the end of lockdown on 2 December.
With the situation uncertain, many clubs now face the conundrum of whether it is possible to safely facilitate the return of fans en-masse.
Bringing back fans
Although a stark rise in Covid-19 cases in the UK means that the return of fans to stadiums on October 1 was understandably delayed, this has come as a blow to both large and small clubs.
According to Deloitte, the absence of fans could mean that UK Premier League football clubs could experience revenue losses of up to £500m collectively, with the lower leagues also expected to be hit hard.
“The re-opening of stadiums to fans in a way that does not present a public health risk brings with it a myriad of considerations.”
Earlier this year, the Premier League, EFL, The FA, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship penned an open letter urging the government to allow fans to safely return to stadiums, using "innovative ways to bring fans safely back into football grounds".
However, the re-opening of stadiums to fans in a way that does not present a public health risk brings with it a myriad of considerations. These range from testing spectators before they are permitted to attend an event, ensuring that social distancing is maintained both while seated and before and after a match, limiting contact between staff and spectators when purchases are made, and making decisions over whether cheering or alcohol consumption is permitted.
This may be achievable on a smaller scale, but when thousands of fans are introduced into the mix, this becomes complex.
The digital shift in football
Tasked with this challenge, many have turned to technology for answers. The role of technology, particularly artificial intelligence has grown increasingly prominent in sport across the board, and like many trends this has only been accelerated by the pandemic.
“The digital shift was already well underway in many stadium and arena venues pre-pandemic," says Rak Kalidas, commercial director, Levy UK + Ireland.
"Levy and its partners have been pioneering the use of pre-ordering systems, dynamic queuing, cashless payment solutions and other technologies for a number of years – at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, for example, which became the first fully cashless venue in the Premier League when it opened.
“These kinds of innovative technologies, which have always helped to improve the speed and quality of customer service in our venues, will now also serve a new purpose in allowing for the safe return of fans to our venues. They will enable guests to move more seamlessly through venue spaces, avoid congestion in normally busy areas and enable a greater level of hygiene, health and safety."
“The digital shift was already well underway in many stadium and arena venues pre-pandemic.”
But while tech-savvy stadiums are nothing new, deploying technology in a way that promotes Covid safety measures provides an opportunity for innovation.
Technology company Restrata has teamed up with consultancy company Mott Macdonald to developed a five-step strategy to help clubs prepare for the return of fans. This includes recommendations such as developing "ICT technologies to reduce the number of touchpoints, Covid-19 security technologies to monitor fan behaviours and operational interventions such as stewarding, security and cleaning procedures."
In September, the UK government announced the formation of the Sport Tech Innovation Group as a way of exploring how technology could enable fans to safely return to live sporting events.
In the private sector, several firms have come up with tech solutions, either adapting existing technology to suit a new purpose, or creating new tools specifically for the world of sport.
Earlier this year Manchester-based VST Enterprises unveiled its Fans are Back plan in which fans would receive a rapid Covid test, capable of producing results in ten minutes, the day before a match. The results would then be uploaded onto a digital health passport, with fans that have tested positive for Covid-19 not permitted to attend the match.
DNA testing company Prenetics, which is behind the Premier League’s Covid-19 testing programme that is providing tests for teams, also recently announced it had raised £11.6m to fund rapid Covid tests.
However, while rapid testing may be an attractive option for limiting Covid transmission, the reality of acquiring and administering testing on the scale needed will likely face several significant hurdles.
Image courtesy of ph.FAB / Shutterstock.com
The importance of data
In the meantime, other approaches may be needed. With experts largely agreeing that comprehensive data on the general population's movements is invaluable in the context of a pandemic, data could also pay a key role in planning for fans' return to stadiums before, during and after matches.
Technology can be used to test different crowd management strategies, seating arrangements or fan numbers, allowing different scenarios to be mapped out before match day.
An example of this is software solutions company Advanced, which has developed a ticketing solution to ensure that seats are sold in such a way to enable social distancing.
By deploying an algorithm, Advanced automatically ensures there is space between different groups and can also ensure that only people from the same household are seated together.
West Ham United is working with Momentum Transport Consultancy, which uses data to simulate foot traffic around stadiums and model how fans will arrive and leave sporting events in order to reduce crowding.
Although this type of technology has been used by stadiums for a while now, in the context of Covid, understanding how fans move around a stadium and avoiding congestion and bottlenecks is more important than ever.
An alternative strategy is the use of occupancy management systems, according to Evgenia Ostrovskaya, business development director at Genetec.
"Occupancy management systems are one way to do so, counting visitors in different areas of the stadium to ensure that social distancing is maintained – enabling staff to close off areas once the visitor threshold is reached,” she explains.
“Fan data will fuel the potential return to stadiums. Data and analytics have been used in the sports industry for some time now but there is more work to be done.”
“Furthermore, the system’s dashboard generates reports to help staff accurately assess foot traffic trends, allowing them to better optimise a space for social distancing and learn how people move around the space – so specific controls can be added if required.
"Similarly, by installing advanced access control technologies at doors and other bottlenecks around a stadium, this technology can help with track and trace operations. For example, if one fan is diagnosed, operators can use data to see who else was in close proximity within a specific time-frame and contact them to self-isolate as a precaution."
Nick Jewell, director of product marketing at Alteryx believes that clubs must take advantage of the data at their disposal.
"Much like retail, travel and hospitality, the sports industry must use data and technology to help get the business back on track,” he says.
“Luckily, the sports industry is not new to this way of working. In recent years, data analysis has grown in stature and is widely used in sports training strategies to manage athletes' efforts and optimising on-field tactics. Yet, today in the wake of both a pandemic and recession, sports organisations must do more to protect fans and revenue.
"Fan data will fuel the potential return to stadiums. Data and analytics have been used in the sports industry for some time now but there is more work to be done. Let’s take football, for example. Right now teams should be analysing previous and predicted future ticketing data – such as fan purchases, how many tickets they usually buy, and seating preferences – as well as stadium layouts to anticipate how to get fans back into the grounds."
Once spectators are inside a stadium, social distancing on matchday becomes a key concern, and as has been the case in some workplaces, where wearable devices have been introduced to help enforce social distancing rules, investing in technology may be the only way clubs can do this safely.
Intelligent locating systems company Quuppa is working with authorities from the world of sport to help facilitate the safe return of spectators to venues. The company uses real time location services via Bluetooth to track attendees and ensure they are social distancing.
"Innovations such as real-time location services (RTLS) can monitor the location of spectators within venues to ensure they are keeping to social distancing measures,” says Fabio Belloni, co-founder and CCO of Quuppa.
“Innovations such as real-time location services can monitor the location of spectators within venues to ensure they are keeping to social distancing measures.”
“This not only helps to detect breaches but also provides the data to allow for measures to be implemented and adjusted as necessary. Factors like the formation of queues, close quarter behaviour and adherence can all be measured. It also provides an effective track and trace system for reported Covid-19 cases while complementing the work done by stewarding, and possibly reducing the operational costs.
"By providing spectators with small Bluetooth-powered chips, integrated into a comprehensive tracking system, we can ensure optimum accuracy and reliability of social distancing measures, without infringing on the spectators’ privacy.”
Software company Crowd Connected has come up with a way of monitoring fan movement in real-time. The company's solution can be embedded into a team's official app, tracing movement but also directing fans to specific areas of the stadium to prevent overcrowding.
However, as has been the case with the rollout of contact tracing apps, movement tracking can have privacy implications and the concept may be unpopular with fans.
Image courtesy of Vera Eremov / Shutterstock.com
“To tempt the masses you need to elevate the experience”
Regardless of the solution, it is clear that clubs may have to re-think the fan experience, both in terms of safety and entertainment.
"While diehard fans will come back on their own, to tempt the masses you need to elevate the experience of being there more than before,” says Simon Wilson, CTO of Aruba UK&I.
“To this end, organisations hosting sports events need to make less about, for example, 90 minutes of action – and rather shape it into a whole day experience, it’s about that expectation and delivery of a great experience.
"Offering things such as travel advice and discounts, food suggestions and offers or exclusive content (replays, VAR, trivia, real-time info and contextual statistics), elevate the fan experience by making everyone feel as smart as the commentator.
“Organisations hosting sports events need to make less about, for example, 90 minutes of action – and rather shape it into a whole day experience.”
“Alongside this, make the experience as frictionless for fans, athletes and officials - electronic ticketing and passes, wayfinding to the gate, seats, food, the bathroom and the way out. For quite some time in the US they’ve been avoiding food queues with pre-orders and in seat delivery – there’s no reason we can't see this more widely adopted in the sporting world.
"We also have to make people feel safe and there are existing tools for venues and clubs that enable them to deliver this experience – using Wi-Fi location to tell them where crowds are and where they’re heading or Bluetooth and location specific notifications which can guide stewards to those needing assistance.
"However, these changes can’t just be enacted in the top leagues – organisations should use select and appropriate innovations that can be done in affordable ways to allow them to filter down into lower leagues. That way we can reinvigorate not just the best of the best but also that crucial grass roots level sport.”
“Getting digital identity right will be key”
From this influx of innovation, it is clear that from adversity a new opportunity to re-think the logistics of live sporting events has been presented.
However, safety considerations aside, clubs must also contend with the fact that once stadiums are permitted to open again, fans may be cautious about returning to mass gatherings.
Research by ForgeRock found that 55% now prefer to watch live sports online - a 27% increase since the onset of the pandemic. Even after restrictions are lifted, 59% of people said they plan to watch movies, live sports and music mostly or only online.
“This points to a permanent shift in consumer preferences, rather than a short-term blip.”
"This points to a permanent shift in consumer preferences, rather than a short-term blip. To gain the loyalty of this online influx of customers, sports brands and broadcasters need to invest now in providing quality online streaming services which give the fans the positive matchday experience they expect,” says Nick Caley, vice president, United Kingdom, Eire, Middle East & Africa at ForgeRock.
“That means that getting digital identity right will be key - giving fans seamless but secure access across multiple devices, and smooth online offerings which are tailored to their preferences."
It has become clear that new ways of engaging and interacting with supporters are needed outside of the stadium.
Image courtesy of Dziurek / Shutterstock.com
“Technology needs to bridge the gap between the game and the fans”
When it comes to at-home fan experiences, Deloitte said that fan expectations are changing: "They are expecting unique services, offerings and insights through experiences that are personalised and contextualised. Clubs can use technology to deliver a scalable, tailored, omni-channel experience that transforms fans from spectators to participants, whatever the time and place."
Garry Williams, Business Director at UNIT9 believes that technology must be used to "bridge the gap" between live sport and fans.
“It’s now possible to create a digital version of a Mexican wave; trigger a chant that’s sequentially picked up by virtual fans and transformed into sound around the stadium; or creatively represent virtual crowd emotion in real-time.”
"If sporting events remain crowd-free for the foreseeable, technology needs to bridge the gap between the game and the fans,” he says.
“That doesn’t mean installing a giant screen in a stadium with a multi-person zoom call where no one talks to each other. Fans deserve more. As do the athletes, who are also desperate for the buzz of a live crowd.
"And yet few sporting events seem to using tech-enabled two-way interaction. By combining real-time visual effects and AI along with the inbuilt tech capabilities of today’s latest smartphones, it’s now possible to create a digital version of a Mexican wave; trigger a chant that’s sequentially picked up by virtual fans and transformed into sound around the stadium; or creatively represent virtual crowd emotion in real-time."
Enhancing fan engagement
While matching the atmosphere of a stadium may be a challenge, it has created an opportunity for innovation. For example, Yamaha has developed the Remote Cheerer app, which allows football fans in Japan to send cheers to 58 speakers located in the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa.
In the UK a partnership between Chelsea Football Club and Three has resulted in the Connect the Game platform, which offers exclusive experiences for fans.
Todd Carothers, chief revenue officer at CounterPath believes there are several ways that football and broadcasters can improve fan engagement while they wait for clarity on the return of spectator sports.
"The technology that we’ve all come to rely on enables the sports teams to better reach their fans while distributing valuable content,” he says.
“The challenge is now going to be shifting towards solutions that enhance fan engagement for an eventual return to pre-Covid audience levels.”
“Here are some examples: enrich team apps with UCC tools so that fans can communicate with players, for example, or members of the front office; enable group watching sessions of a match – the ultimate social distanced event; improved customer service experience with fans being able to connect to the ticket office as they are inquiring about matches (with follow up via messaging).
The delivery of increasingly more sophisticated and immersive fan experiences may be brought about by wider technological advances, such as 5G.
“Unequivocally, 5G will upend the ways in which consumers watch and attend music and sporting events in 2021" said OPPO UK's Kevin Cho.
"[Low latency] will support the explosion of VR, AR and IoT devices across the board – all of which are poised to change the way we watch sports and deliver opportunity and flexibility in new ways. After all, sports events are constantly iterating and increasingly utilising data to offer a more personalised experience for their fans – and 5G will be behind all of that."
The question of whether fans will return to live sport in droves, or whether remote experiences can offer enough to rival the excitement of matchday still remains unanswered.
However, in either scenario, technology will be firmly at the centre.
“The challenge is now going to be shifting towards solutions that enhance fan engagement for an eventual return to pre-Covid audience levels,” explains Steve Miller-Jones, VP edge solutions and solution architecture at Limelight Networks.
“Replicating the same energy and experience online is a difficult task. But creating an immersive entertainment experience is essential for the industry. After all, the sports industry thrives on spectacle."
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