Just a handful of football clubs offer fans fast smartphone connections despite growing pressure to install the technology. But how does the footy tech race impact fans and clubs?
Arsenal and Aston Villa fans flooding Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup Final are unlikely to be stuck for a smartphone signal after telecom giant EE’s overhaul of its phone signals last year – but they will be in the minority.
Along with the tube and airplanes, football stadiums may be one of the last untapped areas of life where internet connectivity fears to tread.
Just one Premier League club, Man City, offers wifi to all fans, while Scottish champions Celtic are the only club in Europe to roll out a fully commercialised wifi system.
Clubs like Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea are examining the possibility of wifi but remain cautious, with some arguing it is not a top priority for fans. Yet despite football’s huge sums – Sky paid an eye-watering £4.2bn for three seasons of live football this year – the lack of stadium connectivity could be walling off the burgeoning trend for smartphone-based interactions and sales, marketing executives say.
Celtic has just completed its first season offering a free smartphone app for fans at Celtic Park. With 100,000 downloads, early indications suggest fans are embracing the digital opportunity.
“It’s a genuine change of the matchday experience,” Kelly Williams, managing director at Sports Revolution, which developed the app, said. “To see how many shots on goal and to be able to get live commentary is only a benefit.
“The fans are increasingly engaged with it. In a few years’ time the social media generation are going to be the adults going to games and it’s just going to grow and grow.”
Others are looking at Celtic’s experiment with interest. A recent tie-up between Real Madrid and Microsoft to launch a wi-fi match app will only have sharpened that. Yet an explicit focus on the immediate revenue spike on offer may miss the point, innovators in the industry say.
“A lot of clubs have struggled because they have just looked at revenue,” Stadia Solutions’ Gordon Campbell said. “If you’re only trying to sell things to fans that’s not a model that will work. Fans pay a lot anyway. You’re doomed to fail if you focus solely on commercial aspects.”
Stadium connectivity remains a nascent part of football because cost and complexity is high. Estimates suggest it costs around £500,000 to £1m for a club to install wifi.
EE director of networks Mansoor Hanif, who helped kit Wembley Stadium out with its 4G coverage, said: “I’ve been doing networks for over 20 years and stadium connectivity is one of the biggest challenges we face around the world. Even if you have fantastic coverage, at half time the whistle blows and everyone reaches for their phone. That’s a massive challenge from an engineering perspective.”
Despite the challenges, American sports offer an insight into some of the benefits on offer.
The heart of Kansas is not a place you would typically look to as a harbinger of the future of English football yet the city’s top team, Sporting KC, provides a clue as to how football could evolve.
The club installed wifi connections and launched an app letting fans order food and drinks and upgrade their seats, and in-match revenues rose 40 per cent.
English football fans spend under £3 per match in the ground during the average season while US sports fans spend about £13. It may be the longer game time but it can also be pinned on the wider uptake of stadium connectivity. “In the US fans get there an hour before the start of the game but in the UK football fans have got it to a fine art of getting into their seats 30 seconds before kickoff and getting out one minute after the end,” Campbell said.
Yet some fans fear the introduction of wifi could kill off the match atmosphere entirely. When PSV Eindhoven rolled out wi-fi to fans last year, their stadium was rocked by protests. Tomorrow’s FA Cup final will offer 4G to Villa and Arsenal fans but views on the benefits are mixed.
“Supporter participation is at an all time low anyway,” Raymond Herlihy, from Arsenal supporters’ group REDaction, said. “As soon as you give people another chance to disengage people will take that and we’ll lose the atmosphere.”
But Dave Woodhall, editor of Aston Villa fanzine Heroes and Villains, said he had no concerns. “You can’t uninvent the wheel,” he said. “My belief is all these modern things you just have to accept. The old days of football have gone. People who go to football now want wi-fi and they want comfort.”
A Football Supporters’ Federation spokesman added: “You don’t want fans faffing around with their phones when the game’s on because you want them to get behind the team. But at the final whistle fans want decent connectivity.”
Despite worries over the impact of wifi and 4G connections it appears the lure of the smartphone – the average person looks at their phone 250 times a day – is set to start to invade UK stadiums more and more.
“Sports stadiums today are the cathedrals of society where people congregate,” Hanif said. “People just want to communicate their presence when they’re there.”