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The next stage in football’s digital revolution is ready for the new season

Technology is playing an increasing role in football, as the Premier League adopts video assistant referees for the first time and clubs turn to data to capture more of their fans’ attention

Every summer, football fans are promised that the new Premier League season will be like no other. The only difference is that this time, the hyperbole may be right – and it’s all thanks to technology.

Football has been notoriously slow to adopt innovation in the past, with its governing body – naively or arrogantly, depending on your viewpoint – believing that the sport was doing fine without it.

Now, though, things are changing, as David Elleray, former Premier League referee and a key figure in world football’s technology revolution, explains.

“Football was slow to embrace technology on the field during the match, partly because the sport had been so successful without it and there were those who were passionately opposed to using it for decision-making,” he tells Computer Weekly.

“They believed that the game is made up of human beings, including players, coaches and referees, who make mistakes – and that should be part of the game.”

Here comes VAR

The advent of the video assistant referee (VAR), which will be used in the Premier League for the first time this season, has the potential to change the game as we know it.

The brainchild of the Dutch, VAR follows goal-line technology as the latest development to drag football, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

In football terms, the Netherlands has always been seen as a nation that embraces change more readily than most, both on and off the pitch. After all, the Total Football Dutch team of the 1970s completely altered the way football was both coached and played. 

Earlier this decade, the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) came up with a notion that would be every bit as revolutionary. Refereeing 2.0 set about redefining the role of one of the sport’s most divisive but essential figures, the referee.

It was hardly rocket science, but for the suits of world governing body FIFA, it was potentially the most fundamental technological shift since the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was beamed around the world in glorious colour.

Starting in 2010, the KNVB began trialling goal-line technology – with FIFA ratifying a breakthrough that most sports viewed as relatively primitive following a two-year test in the Dutch league.

Hawkeye had been used in tennis since 2004 and in cricket since 2001, which illustrated football’s reluctance to embrace change.

Goal-line technology was eventually used in the Premier League in the 2013/14 season and now, six years after it was first introduced, the richest league in world football is preparing to take a giant leap into the unknown with VAR.

Controversy ahead

At the 2018 World Cup, an army of VAR officials, housed in an impressively equipped tech cave, could make decisions based on views from 33 different cameras, including eight super-slow-motion, two ultra-slow-motion, two ultra-HD and two specific smart cameras designed to capture images of offside players.

In short, that list provided all the information and imagery that officials needed to ensure that the result of any decision referred to VAR ultimately turned out to be the correct one. A year later, supporters will hope it does the same in the Premier League.

“For VAR, the concern was that because so many decisions are ‘interpretation’, there would be too many interruptions and the game would lose its flow and emotion and become like American football,” says Elleray.

“But, on average, there is only one review every three matches – and the average time of a review is about 80 seconds. So an interruption of 80 seconds for every 4.5 hours of play means that people are generally happy with VAR as it is not intruding or interrupting too much. When it does intrude, it has corrected major errors, which has brought greater fairness. It has also improved player behaviour as they cannot get away with things so easily.”

It is hard to find flaws in Elleray’s summation, but that doesn’t mean VAR will be welcomed with open arms, as Richard Masters, the Premier League’s interim chief executive, acknowledged recently during the Premier League Asia Trophy in China.

“I have no doubt it’ll create some controversy because it’s about the big decisions, but we’re prepared for that,” says Masters. “But we’re putting something new into the Premier League and if it needs to be refined or improved or tweaked, we will look at it when the moment arises. We’ve got to let it happen first and keep an open mind about whether it’s really working.”

That final sentence appears to reveal that football is still not completely comfortable with the potential boon provided by technology that most sports now take for granted.

Digital strategies

What is taken as a given is that football clubs’ digital strategies in 2019/20 are now some way ahead of what has gone before, with data harvesting allowing clubs to develop targeted campaigns that have transformed their offerings.

“For us, data is absolutely integral in enabling us to segment and target fans to essentially improve conversion rates,” says the head of digital strategy at a leading Premier League club.

“Using data and our personalisation engine, we are able to personalise messaging depending on spend levels, whether a user has bought a ticket or not, what country they are from or what language they speak.”

As a result, in the most multinational league in the world, clubs can tailor their messaging to a local audience, no matter where in the world that audience happens to be.

“We can use popular players in that region and local language to drive sales,” says the digital chief. “The data we have collected has allowed us to do this effectively and has helped us to build a detailed profile of different segments of fans.”

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That is particularly valuable in Asia, with the Premier League’s enormous popularity in the region providing clubs with potentially lucrative and largely unexploited revenue streams.

“Clubs are starting to commercialise their digital audience,” says Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman Group in China, who, along with Europe-based Seven League, helps Premier League clubs to define and implement their digital strategy.

“They are saying to their sponsors, we’ve got two million followers in China, we’ve got six million followers across Asia, and this is the demographic. We can create digital programmes to engage consumers and your brand through our channel and here is what you can pay for it. That is a pretty powerful tool.”

That explains why so many clubs – including Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – could be found playing pre-season matches in far-flung locations such as Singapore and China in July.

They couldn’t have been further from their national fan base but, in 2019, that is largely irrelevant, from a commercial perspective at least.

“Having an elite football team in market is a pretty unique opportunity for the sponsor,” says Collins. “Take AIA with Spurs, for example. How often do they really have the opportunity to demonstrate that partnership, generate coverage and have eyeballs on the brand? That doesn’t really happen in any meaningful way unless the team comes to Asia and plays matches in front of a local audience.”

E-commerce opportunities

Before Spurs’ tour to the Far East, they became one of the first teams in the world to launch an e-commerce store on shopping platforms in China, with fans in the country able to purchase merchandise on Tmall, the Alibaba-owned online retail platform, and multipurpose app WeChat.

That should ensure an enduring e-commerce presence long after the club has flown home. But these shifts in tech strategy aren’t just in evidence overseas, they are also becoming far more obvious in the UK, too.

“The new consumer is far more digital and less engaged in long-form content,” says Collins. “They consume football news and football stories, but they don’t sit in a pub on a Saturday afternoon and spend three hours there. The role of the fan is changing and how they follow the team is changing.

“That is particularly true in mobile-first markets like Indonesia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. A lot of those markets skipped the broadband internet era and went straight to the smartphone, where they started consuming all their content. They have grown up on the smartphone.”

That is a phenomenon we are seeing in the UK too, with the actions of the next generation of football consumer very much in line with those in the Far East. And football is responding to this shift.

For the first time this season, for instance, fans will not have to huddle around their TVs on Boxing Day to watch football. Instead, they can get their Christmas football fix on Amazon Prime, with every match in the Premier League that day being streamed live on the platform.

That is a sea-change that marks another historic tech first for the forthcoming season and one that could have a huge impact when the next TV rights deal comes up for negotiation.

If Amazon manages to pull it off, previously reticent streaming entrants into the space might suddenly rush to get involved.

“The great thing about sport is, rather than scripted entertainment, you never know what’s going to happen,” says Collins. “The live component is non-negotiable and that is sport’s constant competitive advantage. But that doesn’t mean the consumer’s consumption of sport won’t change.”

That’s one argument that doesn’t need to be referred to VAR.

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