The Evolution of Stadium Technology
Stadium display technology has evolved to become an ever-increasing part of the pre-Covid matchday. As stadiums prepare to welcome fans back at the start of next season, what part do the screens and content throughout the stadium play in creating an experience for fans that feels both safe and special? Oliver Brindley of ADI finds out more…
It’s now nearly a year since Covid brought the world – and football – to a juddering halt. Initially expected to be a few weeks, very soon it became clear that this was going to be for the long haul and the stadiums of our nation would remain silent; matches delivered exclusively through the socially distanced sterilised television screen; the roar of fans added artificially, solely for the benefit of the fan on the sofa.
As the vaccine roll out competes with emerging strains, there still remains the faint promise of some sport played in front of fans this season. However, hopes remain high that the new season in August will start to see fans able to return in significant numbers, but just what restrictions may still be in place is still very much unknown.
Planning for Uncertainty
Throughout the pandemic, uncertainty has been a major challenge across most of the industries we work in. Whether that’s sport, retail or events, the foundation of managing large numbers of people successfully is built primarily around knowing how many people to expect.
We’re a long way out from fans returning, but it seems likely that the “return to normal” will be a phased approach and that full stadiums may be a while away yet. Ultimately, venues need to plan for flexibility, with systems and processes in place that can scale up and down to cope with different crowd sizes at relatively short notice.
And what are clubs to expect of their fans? Whilst most clubs are bullish about the return, there must be a seed of doubt that many fans will have become comfortable being fed a steady diet of every Premier League match televised from the comfort of their sofa. Maybe making the trip to the match each weekend doesn’t seem so attractive anymore? Maybe, just as Covid has accelerated a downward trend in physical retail, it will also have increased the trend for younger fans to watch on a screen in preference to in person at the stadium?
Undoubtedly fans will be pleased and excited to be back, but clubs will also be looking to bridge the atmospheric gap between the old and new normal and ensure that they provide an experience that isn’t only safe, but also feels special to fans starved of a live match atmosphere.
Technology already plays a pivotal role in both predicting and managing crowds in the modern stadium; the pandemic has only made this more vital. Advanced crowd modelling can help predict potential bottlenecks; CCTV and the phones in our pockets can – with the correct permissions – identify crowd movements in real time; screens within the stadium can help to direct fans accordingly. Aligning these different systems to communicate seamlessly with each other – and ultimately the fans – will be important.
Traditionally digital screens around stadia have served three main purposes: they deliver fan engagement, activate commercial partnerships and help to manage crowds and deliver safety messages.
It’s highly likely that safety will be a more prominent role in the content schedule as stadiums wish to reinforce messaging around social distancing. Digital has a significant advantage over print in a number of areas: impact, flexibility and reactivity. Messaging can be precise rather than generic and allow for reactive crowd management rather than simple generic message reinforcement, meaning that messaging can change to suit the stage of the matchday and indeed what is happening that very moment.
Safety and crowd management may well drive an increase in touchpoints, with more, smaller screens being installed across the stadium footprint. Expect to see more digital representation at entrances and turnstiles; anywhere where bottlenecks of fans are expected to occur and where greater crowd management might be required.
This change is supported by advances in display technologies. The latest evolution of LED is far lighter and slimmer than ever, making deployment of smaller screens in more locations far simpler and cost effective.
AN EVOLVING EXPERIENCE
Traditionally the matchday consisted of a series of smaller events prior to the main event, each with its own dwell time. So you might arrive at the stadium and be entertained in the fanzone, then half an hour before kick-off move to the concourse for a pre-match drink and snack, before heading to your seat a few minutes before kick-off.
It seems likely that social distancing measures will see many of these dwell events curtailed – or at least closely monitored and regulated. In a diminished crowd situation, the safest place for fans to be may well be their own seats, so the format of the matchday may change to encourage fans into the stadium bowl earlier.
Accordingly, in the shorter term, entertainment may well be focused more towards the stadium bowl, so expect to see a renewed focus on the matchday programme on the stadium screens rather than in the concourse and fanzones for instance. Again though, it’s likely that emphasis will shift as restrictions are lifted, so clubs will need to take a fluid approach with their content team and technical partners to continually assess and adapt and ensure that fans are aware of what’s expected of them.
Food and beverage is another obvious bottleneck point as everyone rushes to get the halftime pie and pint. Again, the technology to manage this is already in active use, with stadium content platforms that can allow fans to pre-order and automatically direct them towards less busy outlets as required. It’s likely that the application of this technology will need refining to adapt to social distancing – perhaps we will see at-seat service or even a longer half-time break – but the tools are readily available.
INTEGRATION IS KEY
No, we’re not talking about scrapping social distancing, but about technology and content integration. Stadium technology platforms have become increasingly complex and disparate; a creeping phenomenon that has occurred naturally as more and more tech has been installed.
So many stadiums now feature multiple different suppliers, all operating different platforms that would ideally be complimentary to each other. Giant screen, digital perimeter, mid-tier ribbon, concourse television, matchday production, pre-match entertainment, fanzone – all separate platforms, often operated by different companies and playing different content.
It’s clear that those stadiums that have a more joined up strategy to their technology and content will find it easier to adapt, but increasingly we expect a longer term strategy by most stadiums to try to consolidate technology partners, regardless of pandemic restrictions.
MAKING IT SPECIAL
But the return of fans isn’t just about safety. It needs to be about making it a special experience.
It’s absolutely vital to get the balance between safety and entertainment right. The stadium needs to feel welcoming, rather than restrictive. Whilst screen content can be directly instructive, crowd management can also be achieved by creative, appealing programming that encourages fans to dwell in the areas you wish. If that means a longer time spent pre-match in seats, then accordingly the entertainment should be extra engaging and interactive.
It feels like this is going to be a continually evolving process and ultimately, we may well be looking at a “new normal”, rather than a “return to normal”. In the coming months, the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty; Clubs that embrace this and adapt accordingly will be the ones that see greatest success.
Images: PA Images