Digital transformation and innovation in football and Fan Fit

By Dr Alex Fenton

2019 has been an interesting year for football clubs and innovation. PwC’s Sports Survey 2019 went with the headline “Sports industry – time to refocus?”. This came from their survey of 580 industry leaders from 49 countries on their growth expectations. 94% of these concluded that innovation was important or very important but only 47% had concrete innovation strategies.  The report showed that the top growing sports were classified as eSports, football and basketball. Furthermore, improved fan engagement and enhanced media offering were classed as the top two opportunities. 

“Sport organisations will need to refocus on the right combination of enabling structures, processes and people to make this happen and remain relevant in an increasingly competitive and disrupted industry.” – PwC, 2019

Our research focuses on digital innovation and fan engagement in football and other sports. This started in 2014 with my netnography PhD research on social media communities and Salford FC which concluded in 2018. From online participant observations and interviews with fans and social media managers, I found that social media targeted and managed carefully could build lasting relationships with fans around the world. However, I discovered that in order to truly engage fans in a sustainable way, football clubs needed to invest in more social media savvy people to engage more fans, build social media capital in order to receive more of a tangible benefit and engage a wider population of weakly connected fans around the world. 

Beyond social media, I started to experiment with research, events and projects with Virtual and Extended Reality, eSports and club apps. Club smartphone apps is a particularly interesting topic for fan engagement. Practically every fan has an Android or iPhone and engages with their favourite clubs through their favourite social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube. However, football clubs (like many other organisations) are afraid that they have to spend a lot of time and money on these channels, but they do not own or control the channel or data. This fact has driven some clubs to implementing data strategies such as CRM (customer relationship management) to try and get as close to a single fan view as they can in order to achieve personalised and effective marketing. Fiona Green’s book ‘Winning with Data’ is well worth a read on this topic. 

We’ve just released a book called Strategic Digital Transformation working with academics and industry experts to provide ideas and inspiration for organisations to survive and thrive in a complex and disruptive digital world. 

“Organisations can no longer succeed by being isolated islands of activities. The future is about the collaboration of individuals and organisations in fluid, organic, ways.” – Fenton, Fletcher, Griffiths 

Another innovation strategy to reach always on, smartphone driven fans is through official club apps. This is something that the richer, Champions League clubs like Barcelona, Man City and Bayern Munich have had some success with using the capabilities of the smartphone to go beyond the usual club info app. Club app’s often do little more than the club website and therefore miss out on engaging and innovative features such as Augmented Reality (think Pokemon Go), Virtual Reality, the smartphones camera, linking to other connected devices such as wristbands and other features. 

“Could we see clubs invest more into wi-fi and club apps on the back of [removing the need for matchday programmes]? Getting fans to tweet, send a Facebook post or jump on Instagram throughout the match is probably part of the future of the matchday experience, hopefully all being collated together on a club app featuring matchday content as well as on-demand features and highlights for when you get home and during the week.” – Digital

Many clubs (even major ones) have an official club app on the radar, but lack the time, resources, partner or expertise to be able to execute it. Furthermore, rights and politics often come into play. It is clear that what football clubs spend on player wages is completely disproportionate to what is spent on innovation or backroom staff. For example, Premier League clubs spent 1.41 billion pounds on players in 2019, but only 4 out of 20 pay the living wage to staff Premier League clubs ‘should pay real living wage’ to staff. This also relates to the gap highlighted by PwC in the importance of innovation (97%) vs those clubs that had a concrete innovation strategy (47%).

In response to all of this, we started our Fan Fit project, which aimed to allow sports clubs to experiment with the benefits of an official club app. It also tapped into the growing adoption of fitness apps and massive issue of diseases relating to sedentary lifestyles. For example, figures show you’re more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke in Manchester than anywhere else in the country. Heart disease is still the number one killer in Scotland and this relates to the Scottish effect and Glasgow effect where the life expectancy is much lower. For example, This study shows that babies born in Glasgow have the shortest lives of any in Britain, with 1 in 4 Glaswegian males not making it past 65 . Although there are many factors associated with this, diseases relating to lack of fitness play a major part. The Scottish government and the Scottish Professional Football League Trust (SPFL) have done some incredible work in addressing these issues which has reduced deaths from heart diseases. 

With all of this in mind therefore, Fan Fit aimed to create an affordable smartphone app which was rebrandable to football clubs and other brands. It does all the usual stuff such as pulling in news, fixtures, social media etc. but with the addition of tracking fitness through the smartphone or a wristband. There are plenty of fitness apps on the market, but the unique part of this project is that the app would be an official club app in the correct brand and it would allow fans to compete against other fans in monthly or private leagues. 

Initially, we produced a version for Salford Red Devils where the Red Devils Fit app had a significant impact on fans and encouraged them to get fitter.  We were also able to award physical prizes to participating fans such as signed club shirts, season tickets and Garmin wristbands. We’ve been able to conduct a wide range of research with fans and write this up into several articles including an opportunity to write a chapter on Fan Fit for a great new book called ‘Football as Medicine’. We’re also conducting research with decision makers in sport around the barriers and opportunities for digital innovations like Fan Fit. Below shows some of the barriers that clubs see to adoption. Limited time, money and fragmentation of the clubs digital strategy were seen as major barriers for innovation in sport.

Our latest Fan Fit project is with Rangers FC and Rangers Charity Foundation was funded through a successful bid with Nesta and the Scottish Government called ‘The Healthier Lives Data Fund’’. We were able to release a version for Rangers called ‘Fit Bears’ in November 2019 and it was launched with some help from players Defoe and Morelos and some banter from fans on social media.

 Over 6000 fans downloaded the new app in the first week and the reception from fans online, in focus groups and in the Fan Zone has been incredible. Fans love their club and they really get what we’re trying to do. Fit Bears became the first official club app of both clubs and therefore broke new ground, whilst helping the clubs with their responsibility to fans wellbeing. 

We’ve got some exciting plans for 2020 to help sports clubs and fans to use technologies and help to remove some of the barriers for innovation which can help them. If you’d like to discuss anything in this article, please drop me a line

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