The trend is clear: professional sports leagues – and the clubs within them – are securing increasingly lucrative deals to have games broadcast live on TV. In the UK, it is expected that BSkyB – which owns the Sky Sports channels – could be forced to pay an extra £1.2bn to secure the next set of Premier League broadcast rights, as it goes to battle with rival BT Sport. In North America, the National Football League (NFL) signed a nine-year TV rights deal package with Fox, NBC and CBS which has a combined value of around US$28bn (£17bn, €20bn).
But while the global sports industry is benefitting from increased revenue from rights deals, there has been a conspicuous stagnation – and in some cases even falls – in the number of people actually attending games. In the first six months of the 2013 Major League Baseball (MLB) season, total attendances were down 808,000 on 2012 figures, with 15 of the 30 teams experiencing falls in attendance. The NFL has similar issues, while in Europe, the German Bundesliga has failed to translate the success of its clubs on the pitch to more fans in seats. In Italy, the situation is even more dire. Since 2000, the average attendance at Serie A games has declined from 31,000 to below 22,500 in 2011-12. Last season, 17 of the league’s 20 clubs had grounds less than 70 per cent full on average.
Bringing them back
The decline in attendance can, in some part, be blamed on the wall-to-wall coverage which is available to sports enthusiasts in their own living rooms.
By opting to stay at home for the game, fans can check stats and fantasy league scores on their mobile device, grab a refreshment without queuing, have a toilet break without missing any of the action (by using “live pause”) and even switch from one game (or sport) to another if the first choice match or event fails to live up to expectations.
The option of staying at home is particularly alluring for “casual” fans – the non-season ticket holders who are precisely the type that clubs would want to bring to their stadia more often. So how can clubs and venues stem the tide and attract these casual fans? Fight fire with fire – offer them tech and enable them to bring their comforts with them.
Connectivity is key and a number of clubs have begun to install high capacity WiFi at their venues, which will allow fans to check stats and stay connected to their favourite social media platforms throughout the match. Offering internet access will not only make fans feel more at home, it also creates endless possibilities for fan engagement as well as marketing opportunities.
German Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund (BVB) is one of the clubs to invest in connectivity and plans to install a complete WLAN infrastructure at its Signal Iduna Park. BVB has worked in partnership with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei on the project, which will have the technical capability to deliver stable wireless data services to a capacity crowd of 80,000 – equal to the population of a small town.
“We’re a dynamic club that’s always open to new ideas,” says Joachim Watzke, general manager of BVB. “The new WiFi network will enable spectators to use social networks, post pictures from inside the stadium, send messages, discuss goals, plays and player performance and locate their friends in the stadium. We’ll also work with Huawei to create the possibility for us to deliver exclusive content in our own network, such as details of the team’s initial lineup, straight to fans’ mobile phones, well ahead of the kickoff.”
Another pioneer in providing connectivity to improve the “fan journey” is English Premier League Manchester City FC. The club appointed Cisco to provide a high-density WiFi network and also invested in the StadiumVision Mobile product, which is capable of delivering live video and other relevant information to fans’ mobile devices. StadiumVision can also be used to provide multiple channels of unique content, such match highlights, replays and alternate angle views – providing spectators inside the stadium with similar viewing options to those enjoyed by fans sitting in front of a TV at home.
A WiFi network may sit naturally in the surroundings of a modern venue like Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, but it doesn’t mean that older, historic sports arenas shouldn’t take part in the revolution. Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, whose main pavilion dates to 1899, recently teamed up with The Cloud, one of the UK’s leading WiFi providers.
The venue’s IT infrastructure manager, Paul Long, admitted that responding to the mobile internet boom was seen as a challenge for the traditional venue, but since its installation the free Wi-Fi has become a much-used part of a Lord’s visit.
“When people visit Lord’s they want access to mobile internet so they can share their experience with friends and family,” Long says. “They want to be able to check in at the ground, upload pictures or videos, tweet, check scores and listen to the live commentary. In short, the rise in mobile device usage has meant our visitors are demanding different services from us; to help them get the most out of their visit, we felt we needed to provide the tools to let them do this.”
There is no doubt that the impact a comprehensive stadium WiFi system can make – and the opportunities it offers – for fan engagement is becoming clear to sports marketeers and league officials. As a sign of this, the NFL has instructed all of the league’s 32 teams to install Wi-Fi in all parts of their stadia by 2015.
Jumping the queue
Having reliable WiFi throughout a venue and fans being able to log onto apps opens up a number of opportunities to increase revenue streams through fan engagement. One example is food and beverages. A common complaint among fans is that the long queues put them off making half time or period brake purchases. But what if you could offer your fans a pleasurable and fluid F&B experience – maybe even a touch of exclusivity? There are now a number of new mobile apps which allow spectators to beat the queues in busy bars and cafés by placing their order and paying through a smartphone. The idea is simple – a spectator places and pays for an order and will then be notified when the order is ready to collect.
One of these services, Q App, is already widely used within the hospitality sector and the company recently signed a partnership deal with technology and sports consultancy Sports Fusion, which will focus on evolving and tailoring the application and making it applicable to a range of major sports venues.
Tim Bichara, Q App’s business development director, said: “The sports segment is perfectly suited to mobile ordering. We feel the service we offer has the potential to enhance the overall customer experience, while allowing stadia and arenas to significantly increase the number of customer orders processed, up-sell additional products and gain useful insights into their customers’ behaviour.”
Put it on the screen
Large video screens have been present at major sporting venues for a while now, but some premium products, including high definition (HD) solutions have remained out of reach for many small and medium-sized venues until recently. The rapid advances made in HD technology over the past five years however, means that the price of installation of stadium-wide HD experiences – including large and super-sized LED stadium screens – have decreased significantly.
While having one or two large, “main” screens inside the stadium remains the standard, stadia are increasingly looking to make game-time broadcasting available everywhere in the stadium. With a fully internet-based (IP) network, designed to stream high volumes of media at once, it’s now possible to make HD video available on hundreds of digital displays throughout the stadium, creating a more immersive experience for all. This means that replays or alternate camera angles are no longer confided to the one main screen (or scoreboard), but can be shown on TV displays throughout the stands, press area, premium clubs and on the concourses to entertain fans queuing for refreshments.
An example of a stadium which is investing heavily in such systems is Twickenham in London, UK – the home of rugby and main venue for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The stadium’s owner, the Rugby Football Union, decided to invest £75m in upgrading the venue, with a large chunk spent on a comprehensive technical upgrade, transforming an iconic rugby stadium into one of the most technologically advanced arenas.
Working with consultants Sports Revolution, the RFU decided on a 1km-long, mid-tier ribbon LED system, stretching around the circumference of the bowl. While becoming a standard in the US, the system is the first of its kind in Europe and is used to increase fan engagement by simple yet effective messaging that can be changed and edited in real time.
Elsewhere, the King Power stadium, home of Leicester City FC (LCFC), boasts some of the highest resolution screens in UK football. The club partnered with digital specialist ADI to install two Virtuality v8 30sq m screens as part of a comprehensive matchday broadcast solution. LCFC has also invested in its in-house media department and is able to create and manage content and programming independently.
So while the techonological advances have revolutionised the at-home experience of sport and entertainment, venues are fighting back with their own solutions for fan engagement. It could be only a matter of time before the balance is tipped back in favour of the live in-game experience.