The humans are the problem.
My dad got hurt. Not emotionally, although it was a pretty shocking experience, but physically. A blood blister the size of a 50p piece had come up on his 85-year-old hand within minutes and his other thumb was twisted and sore.
The bottle that hit him with some force was at least half full and thrown from about 15 rows behind us. Had it been going in a higher arc, it might have gone over the edge of the upper tier of the North Bank at the Emirates and would have seriously hurt somebody below.
As it was, it hit my dad and then cascaded beer all over the six-year-old and his father who were sitting in front of us. My dad and I were shocked and didn’t say much or do much – I wanted to look after him and I also wanted to remonstrate with whoever had thrown it, but the father in front of us was apoplectic (and expletive-fuelled) and the stewards found a guy and ejected him pretty quickly.
Never mind what was happening on the pitch, this is not what entertainment is supposed to be. Even forget entertainment, this is not what community and sport are supposed to be.
Forward-wind a week to Friday and I was at the Sports Technology World Series. After I had been talking about the future of sports technology (crystal-ball gazing) someone came up to me to challenge a point I had made around the delivery of food to seats as part of the in-stadium experience. I had said the chances of soccer doing in-seat ordering were slim.
“Stadiums in this country are way behind where they should be. There is so much more we can do” he said.
His challenge to me made me clarify: it is not the opportunity to do something technologically that is problematic; the challenge is with the humans. Not just the kind of idiot who throws a bottle, although that is bad enough, but the cultural challenges of men’s football in the UK which mean it will be very difficult, practically and sociologically, to implement in-seat ordering.
It’s the culture of the fans, but it is also the culture of the clubs. I struggle to think of a club which would encourage an attempt to do in-seat ordering, exactly because of the worries about fan-induced risk.
Naturally, you start to think about other sports where this might be more possible. When I was in Stadio Olimpico for Italy v Scotland in the Six Nations last year, guys were walking up and down the aisles with trays of food and drink. You passed your money along the line and you got sustenance and currency handed back down the line.
Rugby isn’t perfect – it would be a fallacy to believe that it or any other sport was without its sociological challenges – but it’s an obvious comparison to make, not least because the cultural differences between rugby and football are often commented on. US sports can do it because there are more breaks in the games and, maybe, bigger aisles. In football, my experience of looking at stadium experience with three different clubs at the top of the Premier League leads me to think it’s fan culture that is the issue.
There is definitely a chicken and egg element to the creation of acceptable fan culture. As a technologist, I evangelise about the implementation of Fan Engagement systems and other inventions which improve the experience, thereby encouraging more people to play, attend and follow sports. Without the cultural imperative to encourage positive fan cultures, the technological opportunities are an irrelevance.
Technology can offer change from the outside but sport must lead change from the inside.
At the Sports Tech World Series, I was also asked to think about trends of technology. My answer was not about technology.
At Seven League, we are very focused on coming up with ways of using new technological ideas that can be practically implemented with clear return on investment. However the biggest trend is still the overarching speed of digital transformation, adoption awareness and the ability of organisations to see the opportunity for technological implementation and, crucially, be able to take on the cultural challenge to implement human change.
It was ever thus. Just because we can do a technological thing, doesn’t mean we should. Sport, as a sector, needs to develop its understanding of the cultural impact and challenge so that we get ahead of the problems and map the behaviour changes that we want.
We need to get ahead of the game. We need to think about how we want to drive supporter experience from a customer and fan point of view.
Practically speaking this means sports organisations need product developers, and in-life product managers, not just project managers. We need to think about fan experience online and offline in great detail. It means mapping the touchpoints, understanding the behaviours, not just crunching audience data to find new targets to whom you can channel sales messages.
CRM, when done fully, is extremely powerful but too many times people have been sold a short-term, watered-down version that extends only as far as email marketing. So there is a responsibility on the people inside sports who commission these services as well as on those practitioners, like us, who must deliver the highest quality service.
Service Design is a process we’ve been undertaking with a handful of clients recently. From the perspective of product delivery, product management and fan experience strategy it’s important but fundamentally it deals with the bigger issue: we have to want to create a more positive, better sports experience.
We have to want to lead change, focus on the humans, facilitate technology and create an experience where that beer-soaked six-year-old and my dad will want to come back.