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The rise of the remote football fan

As football seasons kick off across Europe, Dugout's Rachel Powney looks at how clubs and their partners can reconnect with fans and bring in new audiences from across the globe

Football clubs have always focused on the physical asset of the stadium as their trump card when it comes to the fan experience. Now, they’ve shifted their efforts to boosting digital engagement because most of their audience is locked out of live matches. 

This change in direction comes as live sport continues to be heavily affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. Despite brief flirtations with bringing fans back over the summer, including the trialling of socially-distanced smaller crowds at friendly matches, large crowds are still generally seen as high risk. 

For the foreseeable future, that means clubs, and their brand and media partners, are set to keep operating in the new normal, where they can’t rely on packed stadiums or the in-person exposure and atmosphere of live matches. But there are ways to tackle these obstacles. Football clubs have made impressive headway with digital replacements for real-world experiences, and even some improvements. With smart technologies and live streaming, these innovators are adapting to the rise of remote spectators and taking them as close as possible to the beautiful game.

This innovation is being helped by the fact that content consumption and behaviour has shifted, opening up opportunities for clubs and content creators. In June, Ofcom reported that adults in the UK were spending a record number of hours per day online, with one in three watching digital video more than traditional TV. 

Here are just a few of the tactics clubs and their partners are using to reconnect with current fans and bring in new audiences from across the globe. 

From stadium to film set

At the beginning of 2020, Premier League CEO Richard Masters floated the idea of ‘Premflix’: a digital streaming channel that would allow clubs to sell viewing rights directly to fans. The concept hasn’t yet gained momentum, but clubs are embracing elements of it by adopting live streaming. Many are treating stadiums as filming sets and expanding their own original content lines. 

Of course, the key goal is improving engagement and value for fans. Pre-pandemic, few viewers watching at home had access to unstructured footage of warm-ups on the pitch, team talks in the changing rooms, and behind the scenes footage from the tunnel. With this extended range of content, clubs are able to drive higher excitement at every stage of the action — right from the build-up to post-match analysis — and provide a fuller entertainment package than fans would normally receive, even if they were physically there. 

Brands have also been realising the potential of an ‘access-all-areas’ approach when it comes to reaching fans digitally. For example, Kia Motors, the official sponsor of UEFA’s Europa League, decided to treat young fans – originally scheduled to be official match ball carriers – with surprise video calls from their footballing idols. The touching moments were captured in Dugout’s Hero’s Walk, At Home series.

Increasing the volume and variety of content production has other benefits too. Making sure stadium spaces stay visible to fans will keep advertising options open for brands and revenue flowing for clubs; with the added advantage that creative will be viewed by a greater worldwide audience, not just match-day spectators. In fact, major sporting forces are already looking to capitalise on this enhanced reach by tapping more placement opportunities in and around the pitch — see the tarps on lower seats and goalposts introduced across the pond by the NFL. 

Whatever policy changes take place in the coming months, it’s clear live streaming has a role to play in the future of football as clubs realise the broader potential of their existing assets.

Augmenting reality

For some, the mission to elevate the homebound fan experience has gone beyond offering a window into usually unseen areas and activities. Joining an array of international sports teams, clubs such as Manchester City and Juventus are taking interaction one step further by harnessing virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR).

As well as offering new ways to engage with teams, players and clubs, this wave of high-tech experimentation gives fans more control over their game experience. For instance, 3D rewind tools allow them to pick and relive their personal selection of highlights in a realistic VR environment, instead of watching pre-determined replays. Similarly, AR integrations such as pop-up player profiles or voice text chats with other fans give viewers the freedom to activate extra information and discuss game progress, when they choose. 

And this is just the beginning. Immersive tech may still be relatively nascent, but as mainstream use and the market grow — with total VR and AR spending due to top $137 billion by 2024 — chances are we’ll see an increased impact on football. 

Virtual tournaments 

Simulated events aren’t new for sports: ITV broadcast the first virtual Grand National back in 2017. But lockdown has made virtual sports a global phenomenon. Not only has viewership soared — up from 1.6 million to nearly five million for the Grand National — but events are also becoming more exhilarating thanks to crossover with esports. 

Previously viewed as a niche interest, the $1 billion esports industry has hit new heights amid the pandemic; and not just among competitors. Spectator appetite for multi-player games has exploded, with streaming platforms such as Twitch recording record-levels of viewers, and getting in on the game has rising appeal for football innovators too. 

Charity events such as the tournament between Manchester City and top esports players are demonstrating the huge combined power of gaming and football, as a form of high-octane entertainment and route to new audiences. By entering the esports arena, football leaders are broadening both their current and future horizons; connecting with a diverse range of fans and paving the way for more varied digital engagement.

The transition to remote viewing has so far proved a success; helping clubs fill the gap left by a lack of live fans and keeping the passion for football content strong. Not only that; new content streams are accelerating the love of the game at international level by making the same high-quality opportunities available to all fans, no matter where they live. As clubs, brands and media partners find they can deliver even better experiences with smart tech, it looks as though this digital evolution will last long after stadium crowds return.