The video assistant referee (VAR) has brought controversy to the Premier League this season and has dramatically changed the experience of matchday fans – those who are physically present in the stadium as well as viewing spectators away from the ground. VAR is here to stay but as we start a new decade there will be an emergence of other concepts and technologies that continue to redefine the matchday experience.
Let’s start with the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. It’s a new stadium and is the first of its kind as it enables supporters to experience a football game beyond the traditional 90-minute match with a quick drink at half time. Spurs invested heavily in the architecture of the stadium to allow fans to move freely around the building. From microbreweries to cashless purchases – the experience of the individual is at the heart of design.
As more clubs build new stadia they will design them in a way which will enhance the supporters’ experience during a game – not just outside of it. The most likely way to achieve this will be through immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR) where, with the aid of a headset, fans can become fully immersed in a different environment. Imagine having a pitch-side seat dedicated for you at a stadium as you watch your favourite team from the comfort of your home.
Various sports have trialled this already, as was seen in the Rio 2016 Olympics through NBC and BBC broadcasting coverage within their respective applications. The NBA has also been experimenting with the technology and Spanish start-up FirstV1sion have been offering VR views from a player perspective in Euroleague basketball matches.
Sky Sports have been using VR for post-game analysis, but they are probably not the best example to give here – especially as they’re using computer graphics from 1997 which were used for PlayStation computer games. Watching Jamie Carragher clumsily review a goal using antiquated technology is becoming a bore.
The VR industry is forecast to be worth over £162 billion by 2021 and the race will be won by the first club to recognise the potential impact of selling thousands of VR season tickets by using one seat in a stadium. This has the potential to dramatically increase tickets revenues without having to have extra seats. A club might have 40,000 season ticket holders today but could also have the potential to sell an additional 15,000 ‘virtual’ season tickets in the future.
If you think talk of VR within the modern-day fan experience is a bit far-fetched then remember that BT Sport broadcasted the Champions League final through VR last season. More and more companies are becoming aware of the potential of this technology.
Facebook also acquired La Liga rights for three years in 2018 and will continue to show games through their platform. The social media giant purchased a leading VR company in 2014 – Oculus – and have invested heavily into this platform. It’s not out of the realms of possibility to imagine Facebook will merge their interest in sports and VR which will mean, for the sake of watching a few adverts, supporters will be able to watch sports within Facebook’s virtual reality platform for a minimal cost.
Once the technology is normalised by the end of this decade you can expect the next focus to be on building personal avatars which means friends would be able to interact with each other in a virtual environment and watch a game together – imagine Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One movie.
And we’re imagining watching sport, away from a stadium, in the same way as we do today which can be a creative limitation. We can’t imagine unlimited access to football games like is offered with an NBA pass where you can purchase every game of a season for your favourite team through an application on your mobile phone.
The impact of Amazon acquiring TV rights this season will raise the bar to supporters and their expectations on how football games could be observed. It’s not unrealistic for Netflix to join the race and change the way sports fixtures are viewed on TV – as they have done with movies and drama programmes. If Martin Scorsese could recognise the benefit in releasing his latest blockbuster movie – The Irishman – on Netflix rather than promoting in cinemas, then I’m sure someone from the Premier League will recognise a similar opportunity in the future.
VR Is one way that’ll impact the fans experience of watching a football game but there are other emergent technologies. Artificial intelligence (AI) – where a machine can do the learning and present data back instead of a slower human brain – will certainly help to determine some of the VAR related debates and arguments in the future. Just like goal-line technology is accurate to the smallest measurements and provide this feedback in a matter of seconds, AI will help officiate decisions in football games using VAR.
During Wimbledon 2019 IBM used their leading AI tool ‘Watson‘ to pilot AI-generated highlights that recognised crowd reactions to produce highlights and distributed these into various media platforms. As the technology continues to evolve it will provide supporters with the ability to have football highlights for their team or even a set of fixtures. Think of an individualised and curated Match of the Day.
AI will continue to make football aficionados more informed from team tactics to much more detailed statistics than is currently available today. Take goals scored, for example. We might see the number of goals and even what part of the net a player might score in current dashboards. In future, we’ll be able to see the impact of detail we hadn’t considered before such as the impact of ambient temperature on performance, as one very specific example.
Over the past 20 years, computer games have raised the awareness of football fans and they’ll continue to do so over the coming decade. Football Manager informed supporters about formations, training, scouting and other details related to professional football and in recent times the FIFA game series has enabled enthusiasts to gain a better understanding of how well their players play in comparison to the opposition, with dynamic updates to ratings.
Simulation games like Football Manager will merge with the playing experience of the FIFA series which will provide fans with a richer experience of football. This will make them more informed which will only serve to raise opinions and ensure that pressure is provided on teams and coaching staff.
Whilst technology will advance at an unprecedented rate over the coming years, the one thing it won’t change is the emotion involved in football. VAR might improve but every supporter will have an opinion about the interpretation of other data, or even the rules of the game, and fans shall find ways to argue their beloved teams we’re robbed of those sacred three points.