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Why digital transformation is vital for Australian football

Digital transformation in sport has a vast array of benefits, providing large opportunities for growth and enhancing fan experiences.

Australian football should embrace digital transformation in order for it to succeed and grow into the future.

A simple definition of digital transformation is when businesses or organisations use digital technology to change the way that something is done.

Digital transformation in sport has a vast array of benefits, providing large opportunities for growth and enhancing fan experiences.

Australian football should be looking to provide constant connection with its fans, instead of just during the 90 minutes of a football game.

FAN EXPERIENCE & ENGAGEMENT

While the 2019/20 Hyundai A-League season did have a record amount of fan engagement with a 30% increase in digital followers and a 15% increase in engagements, there are plenty more opportunities to improve fan experience and engagement via digital transformation.

The FIFA 20 Hyundai A-League Tournament during the suspension of the A-League is a great example. It would be interesting to see a tournament like this played every year in the lead up to the season to attract younger fans and build some hype heading into the new campaign.

Social media allows for clubs to connect with fans easily, where press conferences could be live streamed or players could do Q&A’s on Facebook or Instagram Live.

There’s also opportunities at live events – digital activations at sporting events using data from the match can share information with fans at the game and at home.

The MLS and ESPN recently installed a big screen which nearly runs the length of the pitch at its recent ‘MLS is Back’ Tournament.

Tottenham Hotspurs’ new stadium is another example the digital transformation which Australian football should be looking to for inspiration.

The stadium features large video screens, wireless payment, has stadium wide connectivity with large amounts of Wi-Fi access points and has more bandwidth than any other stadium.

For NPL clubs, regular social media posting would allow the club to reach more Australian soccer fans. Branded content also allows clubs to provide more exposure to the sponsors. Clubs could also make money through these types of deals.

COVID-19

This becomes especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, where some clubs are struggling financially due to seasons being cancelled or less games being played. Branded content could provide clubs with some extra income.

Borussia Dortmund recently signed a partnership with Indian Premier League club Hyderabad FC. Dortmund will be helping to improve Hyderabad’s fan engagement, which will now have to be done in a different way.

“We can’t even think about fans in stadium right now, so it has to be done in a very organic way. We will be doing it through digital means first and soon as we can travel, we’ll have the Fan Liaison Officer to come over to India to give Hyderabad FC an understanding of how the whole phenomenon of the Dortmund fan culture exists. It’ll be a long-stretched process, but I’m positive we’ll get there one day,” Dortmund’s Managing Director for Asia-Pacific Suresh Letchmanan said.

As fans cannot be present at games in the large numbers they’re used to, the fan experience has to be rethought.

Melbourne Victory’s pre-game show ‘Victory TV’  is easily accessible for fans being streamed live on YouTube and Facebook. It provides an easy way for fans to stay engaged with their team during the pandemic.

InCrowd is a fan experience platform and services agency. InCrowd’s Head of partnerships for Australia and New Zealand, Seb Lear, spoke to Ministry of Sport about digital transformation.

“I think this transformation was inevitable and we were already seeing significant progress, but the pandemic has driven many rightsholders to bring their digital plans forward,” Lear said.

“It was Microsoft who said recently that 2 years’ worth of digital transformation had happened in 2 months, and I don’t think sport is any different.”

Mobile-only ticketing is another example of digital transformation that should be considered. This could track when people come into stadiums where they sit allowing for people to be easily identified if there are outbreaks at matches.

OTHER LEAGUES/ORGANISATIONS ARE DOING SO AND FINDING SUCCESS

Other sporting leagues and organisations around the world have embraced digital transformation and are finding success because of it.

“We will be watching this sports content battle closely over the coming year, as well as the success/engagement from the Facebook MLB endeavour, as it could be a sign of things to come with streaming platforms playing a bigger role in global professional sports broadcasting rights in the years ahead and potentially shaking up this market, while adding a major notch on the content belts of Amazon, Facebook and other new tech entrants to this arena,” Daniel Ives, head of technology research at GBH Insights, told CNBC in March 2018.

This has now happened, the sports media landscape has changed and while it is still an option it is no longer absolutely necessary to go through the traditional media organisations.

The sports industry and technology has moved to allow for clubs and organisations to provide direct channels of content straight to consumers.

In the recent FFA online surveys on the XI principles, 72% people believed that the FFA/the leagues should create an on demand/live streaming football platform.

Having all Australian football available in one place would accessing content very easy for consumers.

At a time when A-League clubs are lacking free to air exposure and wanting to reach more fans free live streaming could also be an option.

The A-League in particular should look at having some games being broadcast on a service such as Twitch.

FFA CEO James Johnson recently spoke to NewsCorp about the future of the game.

“I didn’t come back here just to administer the sport. What was interesting to me was really transforming it,” Johnson said.

Transformation is on the horizon and the digital side of it cannot be forgotten.

Daniel Foley is a sports junior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and micro industry matters.

Jamie Harnwell driving the game forward in Western Australia

Jamie Harnwell is Perth Glory’s record appearance holder, with 256 of them across three decades. Now Chief Football Officer for Football West, he spoke to Soccerscene about the changes from the NSL to the A-League, the challenges of running a football federation, and his favourite footballing moments throughout his career.

So firstly, what’s the biggest challenges facing Football West at the moment?

Harnwell: I think it’s interesting. Football West is in a really good position, being very fortunate with COVID over here and able to get out and play. The challenges are more for our clubs I suppose, and then Football West supporting them. Facilities are always a challenge for every sport, but certainly for football. We need to make sure there are enough grounds and space for people to play, but also aspects like lighting, adequate change rooms, and those sorts of things are suitable for clubs. We have a number of them almost putting up the closed sign because they have too many players and not enough space for them to play.

The other challenge for Football West and the clubs is the increase in governance requirements. We are basically a volunteer sport in many ways. And the increasing legalities and issues across that for volunteers to deal with can be difficult. So it’s time that we at Football West need to be able to support our clubs, make sure they’re adhering to good practice, and doing the right things so that they can continue to grow.

How has professional football in Australia improved since you first debuted with Perth Glory in the late 90s?

Harnwell: I think it’s actually professional football now. You know when I first started playing, I think there was ourselves and maybe Carlton who were actual full-time professional clubs. The rest were part-time as people were still working during the day, going to training at night, and trying to juggle the two. So certainly the transition into the A-League and full-time professionalism for all clubs has been huge, and just the continued increased coverage and media around the game has made us much more accessible. It’s easier to see and has a much better chance of building that supporter base across the game here in Australia.

What areas do you think the game can continue to improve on going forward into the future?

Harnwell: There’s always talent development and making sure that we stay on pace with best practices and what’s happening in other parts of the world. We are a smaller nation in the grand scheme of things in football, so we need to be smart about how we approach those sorts of things and make sure we get bang for our buck for everything that we do. The other thing is we need to try and increase the commercialism of the game and make sure that we continue to get funds into the game that can assist in the youth development that can help in costs for clubs and all those types of things. So that’s the way I know Football Australia is working hard on it. They’re starting to bring more and more partners into the game. But if you look at the mega machines like AFL, then we probably still have some way to go in that.

How can football win across young athletes into joining the sport over others?

Harnwell:
I think we’re really lucky as a game. I can’t speak for other states, I suppose – but the numbers here at Football West in Western Australia just continue to grow year in year out. We are a very attractive game for parents to pick for young boys and girls. It’s a very easy game to choose and very easy to play and train. So we’re certainly well-positioned in that respect – making sure that our clubs provide positive environments that they enjoy what they do. There isn’t the overarching focus on just winning games, but more a longer-term development based approach that will make sure talented young players will stay in football rather than going across to other codes.

On a personal level, what is your most memorable footballing memory?

Harnwell: There’s probably a few, I suppose for myself as a player – it would have been the first NSL Championship that we won. We’d had a couple of cracks at it before and sort of fell away in the Grand Final. So that first win in 2003 was huge, and really got the monkey off our back, and managing to score in that game with the massive crowd was fantastic. But I’m also a Manchester United fan, so the treble was pretty good as well. So I don’t know which one ranks better for me!

FIFA’s mission to expand the World Cup will only damage it

With 166 member nations of FIFA voting to explore the concept of a two-year cycle for the World Cup, questions need to be asked whether too much of a good thing will destroy what makes the competition special.

One of the best parts of the World Cup is the spectacle of it all. The elite quality of the tournament is already being watered down with the changes to the format, with 48 teams instead of 32. 

While allowing more teams in will create new markets for the competition, it isn’t like the World Cup would struggle for viewership without them, as it is the most-watched sporting event on the planet.

The changes to the structure of the cup – with two out of a group of three going through instead of the top two in a group of four – is already challenging the tradition and excitement of the World Cup. If you draw one of the powerhouse teams, like Spain, France, or Brazil, then it is likely your country will be on a plane ride home after playing just two games.

Despite the success of the World Cup, FIFA seems to want to tinker with the competition without any concern for the negative impacts the changes may cause. To build support for this, FIFA is wheeling out stars like Arsene Wenger and Yaya Toure.

Wenger is currently FIFA’s chief of global football development

Why FIFA wants to interrupt what has proved to be a winning formula only has one answer: Greed. More games mean more money. In a 48 team competition, there will be 64 games, compared to 40 in the current format. More games equal more money for TV rights and a wider reach for the game with an added 16 teams.

Combine this with the concept of hosting a World Cup every two years instead of four, and FIFA will be printing money like never before.

The unfortunate side effect of this will a weaker competition in terms of quality. There are always some relatively poor teams featured in a World Cup, but adding another 16 of the ‘best of the rest’ will dilute the talent pool. Combine this with the fact some teams may even go home playing only two games, it will surely make the World Cup a less exciting affair for many appearing in the group stage.

Another factor that needs to be considered is sustainability. We’ve already seen that major sporting tournaments often leave countries with huge stadiums without any use for them.

Engineers Against Poverty say that hosting a World Cup leaves a “legacy of white elephants”, with stadiums built for the 2010 South Africa World Cup and 2014 World Cup in Brazil “hemorrhaging taxpayer’s money”. 

A white elephant refers to a possession whose cost of maintenance is well beyond its value, and whose owner cannot dispose of it. An apt reference to what World Cup stadiums have become for countries that do not need bumper stadiums.

Four cities in Brazil that hosted games at the 2014 World Cup –Manaus, Cuiabá, Natal, and Brasília – have no major football teams to play in the humongous stadiums built for the event.

South Africa spent $2.7 billion to build 12 new stadiums for the World Cup, in a country where half the population lives off an average of $242AUD a month

Polokwane, a city of 130,000, now pays $2.7 million a year in maintenance towards the legacy of the South African World Cup.

Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane, South Africa

Russia is also struggling with issues related to stadiums built for the 2018 World Cup. In Saransk, local authorities are dealing with the upkeep of 300 million rubles (AUD 5.5 million) to maintain the stadium built for the event.

Major events don’t just lead to empty stadiums either. For the Sochi Winter Olympics, the Russian Government built a $13.5 billion tunnel system to connect Sochi to the rest of the country. The operation and maintenance of this underutilised infrastructure cost taxpayers $1.6 billion a year. 

FIFA has praised the joint World Cup bid from the United States, Mexico and Canada for using existing infrastructure instead of building new stadiums, however, few countries already have the facilities to host games. 

By expanding the World Cup to every two years, many countries will  be hosting for the first time. This will inevitably lead to similar cases to South Africa, Brazil, and Russia’s stadiums becoming a burden on citizens. 

FIFA risk damaging their premier competition in the pursuit of greed. It needs to be asked why they seem hell-bent on changing a winning formula, especially one that has already been embraced worldwide.

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