Manchester United’s plans for digital domination

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Will fans have access to all Man Utd’s data on Juan Mata (right) and his team mates?

8 September 2015

Tags:sports, sports news, fox sports, sports watch,


Football, for most Manchester United fans, is a virtual experience.

The club claims it has 659 million supporters around the world – a figure disputed by some – but the vast majority will never step inside the famed Old Trafford stadium.

That’s because most of them (85%) live in developing economies around the world, with more than half in Asia, the club says.

So how do you make sure these potentially lucrative supporters stay loyal and have a rewarding and engaging fan experience?

That’s the question the club hopes to answer through its recently-announced tie-up with Indian “digital transformation partner”, HCL Technologies.

Engagement

“What our fans have been interested in hasn’t changed significantly over 100 years,” says Man Utd’s group managing director, Richard Arnold.

“It’s about quality of execution – the right content to the right fans at the right time, in the right language, in the right technology format, through the right medium.”

What that means in practice, however, is a little vague at this stage.

Man Utd already “engages digitally” with 100 million fans, Mr Arnold says.

Man Utd already “engages digitally” with 100 million fans, Mr Arnold says.

It has nearly six million Twitter followers and more than 66 million “likes” on its Facebook page, plus more than 100,000 users of its app, not to mention an undisclosed number of viewers of its digital cable channel, MUTV.

So how do you extend that engagement to the rest of the fanbase?

Krishnan Chatterjee, head of marketing at HCL’s digital business division, says that what you don’t do is try to build a one-size-fits-all app for such a diverse audience.

“How many apps could we build? It could be as low as four or five, or as many as 100 – it’s hard to say,” he tells the BBC.

And social media content has to be tailored to suit the cultural differences – not to mention the available internet speeds – of fans in different countries, he adds.

The key, says Mr Chatterjee, is keeping fans engaged between matches, given that 95% of them will never enter the stadium.

This could mean enabling team sponsors to run competitions and offer prizes, as well as offering the usual game and player stats, and “build your own team” functionality.

Fans might be able to pit themselves against their favourite players

In another example, he says all the data being collected from the players – their fitness levels and running speed – could be incorporated into apps for wearable devices, allowing fans to test their own fitness against that of their favourite players.

“But if I could imagine how a fan will be interacting with the club in five years time then I’ve already failed,” Mr Chatterjee concludes.

“We’re on an exciting journey, so let’s get a lot of ideas on the table and do things no other club has ever done.”

The interaction doesn’t always have to be very hi-tech, however.

Mr Arnold says that simply giving fans the ability to wish players happy birthday on social media “turned out to be one of the most engaging pieces of content you can do”.

Technical challenges

HCL will be setting up a “United Xperience Lab” at the Man Utd’s Old Trafford stadium, where it will “explore revolutionary ways in which the club uses technology to create a unified fan experience for supporters…”, according to the jargon-filled press release.

The technical challenge of providing that “unified experience” for millions of fans across 200 countries and in 27 languages is “mind boggling”, Mr Arnold admits.

Man Utd player Ashley Young takes a selfie of his fellow players and HCL boss Anant Gupta (third right)

So HCL’s chief executive Anant Gupta says the first task is “about creating a scalable, robust, industrialised platform…”. The content will come as a result of focus groups and feedback from fans, according to HCL, but video is likely to play a big part.

The difficulty of providing streaming video to mobile devices of varying quality, across multiple networks of varying speeds and capacities, is formidable, believes Merrick Kingston, principal analyst at media and technology consultancy, IHS.

“It sounds boring to talk about the nuts and bolts of video, but online distribution of high-quality streaming video is very expensive,” he says, “and optimising your system to enable bitrates that can adapt to different network conditions in different countries is a huge undertaking.”

So is HCL up to the task?

Man Utd were certainly keen to stress HCL’s financial strength, trumpeting its $1bn (£655m) net profit figure on $6bn of revenue, perhaps reflecting anxiety that many people in the sports business world may not have heard of the IT services company.

These Thai Man Utd fans illustrate how important mobile devices have become

HCL operates in 31 countries across the globe, and specialises in forming partnerships with other IT companies, such as Microsoft, Cisco, SAP, Hewlett-Packard and EMC.

That said, Mr Kingston admits: “They’re not the type of firm I’d have expected to see in this type of deal.”

Commercial potential

Of course, the main reason for deeper digital engagement with fans is to make more money for the club.

More interaction means greater advertising and merchandising opportunities among its largely young and affluent fanbase.

Mr Arnold says: “There’s a virtuous circle that comes from enhanced engagement, which translates into more and deeper fan activation, which translates into financial success, which allows us to invest on the pitch, which gives us success.

“And that leads you right back in the circle to the work we’re doing engaging with those fans and driving it on.”

And Man Utd isn’t alone in spotting this potential digital dividend.

This souvenir shop in Bangkok, Thailand, illustrates Man Utd’s global reach

In July, arch rival Manchester City announced a tie-up with German software giant SAP, as part of a drive to share match-day and training data with fans, and generally enhance interaction.

And last week Chelsea announced a deal with Wipro, another Indian IT services company, citing reasons similar to those given by Man Utd.

Christian Purslow, Chelsea’s managing director, said: “We plan on using this partnership to truly enhance the fan experience for millions of Chelsea supporters worldwide.”

Will 50 million of those fans in India, a tie-up with an Indian IT company would seem to make commercial sense.

But will these clubs succeed in providing content their fans want to see and pay for?

Let the digital games begin.

Tags:sports, sports news, fox sports, sports watch,

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