The metal structure of sports stadiums, traditionally, almost completely blocks the signal of most of the devices in the stands. The atmosphere of match day, coupled with the dearth of connectivity inside the stadium made the action very much the focal point with only alcohol and conversation as distractions. When all that this meant was a lack of text messages or phone calls during the match, the absence of in-stadium connectivity made for a pleasantly straightforward experience. Today, though, the demands of some ticket holders are vastly different. One fan wants connectivity, the other wants focus.
When PSV Eindhoven introduced free wifi in the Philips Stadion in 2014, their fans protested against the addition perhaps more aggressively than the hierarchy could have expected, with placards and a banner that read ‘F**k Wi-Fi, support the team.’ So strong was the reaction that it is clear that there are two sides to the argument around stadium connectivity and fan engagement with the main event. Most Premier League football clubs - aside from Manchester City, perhaps England’s most tech-savvy club - don’t offer wifi at present, but with the social media generation now populating stadia across the world as adults, this will undoubtedly be reviewed. It’s a pricey process, though, with its complexity necessitating an investment of between $500,000 and $1 million for a top club to properly install wifi in their stadium.
The US is way ahead of the UK in this kind of thing, and European soccer clubs should look west for examples of the benefits of increased connectivity. Kansas’ Sporting KC, for example, installed a free wifi connection across their stadium, before launching an app allowing fans to order food and drinks from their seats. In-match revenues rose by 40%, a message European clubs will be unlikely to ignore. In fact, US sports teams actively encourage connectivity in-stadium, with boards displaying fans’ social media posts and pictures often in prominent positions and complemented by these match day apps. Those that see connectivity as an unnecessary distraction from the competition will keep attending fixtures. It’s those that demand connectivity that will be influenced by the shift, able to keep up elsewhere whilst surrounded by the din and energy of the match day support. Connectivity may anger some, but it will bring millennials into the stadium.
However, just as the match day experience develops new, welcoming facilities, broadcasting comes on in leaps and bounds. On top of the benefits of proper analysis, HD streaming and the convenience of never having to leave your sofa, innovative new camera systems are promising to revolutionize the way sport is consumed on the screen. Initially put out by Replay Technologies - which was acquired by computer giant Intel - freeD is a video recording system that allows for 360° replays of a sports event. 28 high definition cameras positioned around arenas capture video that is then compiled seamlessly into one shot by freeD software. This allows fans at home the ability to manipulate replays and view them from angles traditionally only available to those on the touchlines or on the field of play.
The NBA has been particularly quick to take freeD on board, and 360° replays will be available to fans watching on TNT, or following NBA on its official sites as well as its social media profiles. FreeD has applications in not only broadcasting but also in training, where coaches could one day get 360° views of their team’s positioning during sessions, for example. But it is in broadcasting that it will have the more immediate impact. Nothing can compare with the thrill of match day and the atmosphere of live sports but, as broadcasting grows in sophistication, its appeal against the nosebleed seats will only strengthen. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said: ‘What you are seeing here is the power to redefine what it means to watch and experience sports… It captures the sports action you love and turns it into a true 3D experience that you can re-watch as if you are right in the game. With this technology, you can control and change the view to any perspective you want. You become the director.’
Sports broadcasting is huge business, which is why the likes of Sky and BT are happy to pay over £5 billion between them for Premier League TV rights for just three seasons. Teams will generally earn more from broadcasting than they do from match day itself, and in the struggle between stadium and broadcaster, freeD is a major win for the latter.