Friday, March 24, 2017

It’s time to update the football fan experience

I came to the UK over 20 years ago now to watch football and the experience really hasn’t updated that much since my first trip to watch Liverpool play away at Middlesbrough’s (then) new stadium.

Competition abounds with plenty of innovation from other Entertainment attractions, and from my trips to top flight grounds this season (St Mary’s, The Emirates and in the new Main Stand at Anfield) it’s notable how much even the newer venues feel behind the demands of the modern match attendee.

It’s the new building such as Chelsea are about to do to Stamford Bridge that offers the opportunity to bring the matchday experience up to date.

Many people I know now watch games at home rather than attend them in person for the simple reason that they get a better view of the action.  While many grounds now have big screens, they don’t play the live action or replays (due to some dated regulation) so you can’t get a view of the great goal or the controversial flashpoint until you get home and see the highlights.

That is of course unless you watch a replay on your own handset, and even that is thwarted with pitfalls.

To say that 4G and Wi-Fi coverage at stadiums is appalling would be an understatement.

When challenged it’s usually attributed to the cost and the complexity of the capacity challenge – going from very little usage to heavy load instantaneously.  In other words, exactly the same challenge that those of us working on the London Underground Wi-Fi rollout project successfully tackled, in that case going from zero load to thousands of devices connecting concurrently as the train exits a tunnel.

The cost is also both not that high and can usually be funded by the provider - and with the cost of Premier League tickets now more value does need bundling in.

There are clearly ways to monetise the provision as well.  Taking the example of the fan engagement platform and app rolled out at the Sydney Cricket Ground there’s a wealth of opportunity just waiting to be tapped.

An app based Wi-Fi network at a ground could effectively be a big Intranet and provides a captive audience.  Ticket and merchandise sales, integration of betting partners, exclusive content and even live matchday coverage and highlights (which if they can only be viewed from the Intranet would not impact the lucrative rights deals) are just some examples.

Holes could be punched through firewalls to social media services and Brands could even pay a fee (for example, to have their sites accessed) or offer fan exclusives from the in-ground network.

When talking about updating a matchday experience many will refer to the 1990s era US model of small screens at every seat – which is expensive to run and maintain - and from my visit to Ice Hockey last year while I was there it’s also notable that nobody uses them.  Fans have a far better, easier to use, personalised and much more powerful experience in the phone in their pocket.  It also doesn’t have the responsiveness of an aircraft in seat screen!

It’s also time that football had a much more grown up approach to alcohol provision in the ground.  While I understand the reasons that bans were put in place in the past, the type of person attending football games has changed markedly since and there’s nothing wrong with having a beer while watching the game as the same fans who are in the ground do when they go to rugby or cricket – and I don’t see trouble when I go to those.

Football grounds have a mandated safety officer who can always make the call to close bars on the day if problems do occur, or even to ban them completely if there is a game upcoming where trouble is expected.

Not only is revenue being missed out on, it’s also depriving grownups from how they want to enjoy a game and will do at home where many prefer to watch it instead.  And let’s face it, everyone knows that many of what Roy Keane famously dubbed the “prawn sandwich brigade” are not drinking coffee in their Starbuck’s cups during the game.

I can think of countless other examples on how to bring what is a somewhat dated Customer Experience to life and it just needs some decent journey design, picking up best practice from elsewhere and an adult conversation with football bodies and regulators (plus a determination to execute a great experience) to make it happen.

I’d love it to feel like 2020 not 1996 when I make my first visit to see Jürgen Klopp’s Premier League Champions win at New Stamford Bridge.

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