On 3rd November 2020 AFC Wimbledon returned to Plough Lane for the first time in 29 years.
The opening game in the new stadium should have been a huge event in the club’s history, but of course Covid-19 stepped in. With no chance of fans in the ground, the club turned to digital routes to keep its fans engaged in the occasion.
Charlie Talbot is both an experienced events producer and AFC Wimbledon advisor and it fell to him to pull everything together. He is a long-standing Wimbledon fan who saw the club play at the old Plough Lane ground, and was one of a small team responsible for the Plough Lane Bond, which raised £5 million from fans to enable the construction work on the new ground to be completed.
“We had to make this seem like an occasion,” he says. “We wanted to create the full-scale build-up show, but we had a stadium which was still in large parts a building site. We had no infrastructure, and what we put in had to be cleared out for the builders to start again the next morning. And, of course, we could have virtually no people on site.”
Talbot worked with Malcolm Robinson of Broadcast Solutions. In turn, they brought in live production technology specialists nxtedition, and together they developed a plan to create a live stream, to run an hour and 45 minutes, leading up to the kick-off of the first match at Plough Lane.
The programme was a mixture of contributions from fans, ex-players and former managers, together with live interviews and behind the scenes footage from the ground. Robinson handled the technology on the ground, including Mobile Viewpoint live camera links over cellular.
Key to everything was the nxtedition software. Talbot first saw the technology six days before the live broadcast, when he was given an access key to the private Cloud software and a pdf instruction manual.
Adam Leah of nxtedition explains, “Charlie got access to the system on Wednesday; I logged in on Sunday and he had created the complete show as a rundown, which was ready to go. What he had built was solid, but it also provided the opportunities to add content later and even live.”
On the night Talbot and Robinson were the entire production crew in Plough Lane while Adam Leah directed the show, from his home office in Marieholm in Sweden, with the content in nxtedition’s private Cloud in Malmö, 30km from Marieholm and 1000km from Wimbledon.
So secure was the rundown that Talbot was able to add content right up to the time of transmission, as well as going live to locations around the ground via the Mobile Viewpoint cellular system. The club’s social media specialists also monitored videos on tweets and uploaded the best into the rundown to be added to the transmission.
“Even I did not appreciate the power of transcodeless playout,” says Leah. “The system just ticked down the playlist, jumping from one item to the next. It looked like it had been well assembled in a pre-cut edit, but it was live transcodeless playout. We played the file that was recorded and sent from the fan’s phone.”
The number of streaming viewers stayed pretty stable at around 2700 throughout the broadcast. “Given that people were watching in families and small groups, we think that is the equivalent of a sell-out of our 9,000 seat stadium,” Talbot says. The pre and post match shows and build up also added 800 subscribers to the YouTube channel. Fans were also encouraged to support the team during the match itself as the volume of crowd noise over the PA system increased when they pressed buttons on the MyApplause app (a technical solution pioneered in Germany to preserve virtual fan engagement in stadiums empty through Covid-19 regulations).
All involved saw it as more than just the celebration of a special occasion. It was clear that this changes the paradigm of fan engagement.
“We crowdsourced content without losing any professional quality,” Talbot explains. “We could go into the dressing rooms. We got instantaneous reaction from the fans. We discovered that, with this technology, we could easily fold in more content, more ways of making the fans feel connected to the club and to each other, even at a time when that real-world stadium experience is impossible.”
“We landed a nearly two hour show that had a spontaneous, live feel because of the fresh content coming, and we got out on time because we had to be clear for the team to run out and thank the fans before the first kick-off.
“And we did all that with a crew of three people,” Talbot concludes. “My mind is already racing on the possibilities of what we can do in the future.”