Interview: "In my view technology that creates a raw but real experience is far more likely to be successful than flash but fake"

2 June 2020

AGF
Photo: AGF “We’ve had conversations with clubs and operators along these lines, and they have all started with reservations but then progressed towards thinking ‘actually, it might be fun and there’s a potential revenue stream there’,” says Andy Pottinger, a director in the Sports and Entertainment team at Buro Happold, commenting on the digital initiative carried out last week in Denmark by Danish Superliga side AGF together with Zoom.

Interest is growing in connecting players and fans via screens following the success at Danish club AGF Aarhus. But changes could be made – especially the roar from the crowd could be developed further.

Engineering consultancy Buro Happold believes that initiatives being carried out now could continue to drive revenue streams post Covid-19.

Andy Pottinger, a director in the company’s Sports and Entertainment team, says broadcasters can benefit as well – as long as authenticity is maintained.

New digital initiatives are set to be keenly pursued due to the sharp reduction in home advantage seen in the Bundesliga.

Jonathan Dyson dyson@offthepitch.com

Last week, when AGF Aarhus hosted local rivals Randers FC at Ceres Park, marking the return of the Danish top-flight behind closed doors, all eyes were on a new digital initiative designed to bring players and fans closer together.

AGF set up a giant 40m x 2.8m screen in its stadium showing fans via Zoom, as they watched the game from home in a virtual grandstand section. Supporters could pick up a free ticket via the AGF website, with 22 different virtual sections to choose from, for both home and away supporters, as well as neutral spectators.

The screen could show 200 fans at a time, with capacity for up to 10,000 fans to be involved throughout the match. AGF, which has worked in close collaboration with Zoom to develop the concept, said that no less than 23 people in the stadium are required to operate it during a match, and that any fan acting in an offensive manner would be swiftly removed from their meeting by a moderator.

AGF Aarhus developed the concept with Zoom.
Photo: AGF AGF set up a giant 40m x 2.8m screen in its stadium showing fans via Zoom, as they watched the game from home in a virtual grandstand section.

The inspiration for the idea was a singalong programme on Danish TV during the country’s lockdown that featured artists singing from home and viewers joining in via video link.

As English football plans its own restart, similar initiatives could also be seen in the Premier League, according to Andy Pottinger, a director in the Sports and Entertainment team at Buro Happold, an international engineering consultancy which works with a number of clubs in the UK and across Europe.

"Actually it might be fun"

Buro Happold has played a key role in designing some of the world’s most impressive stadia, including the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, the London 2012 Olympic Stadium (now the London Stadium, the home of West Ham United), the multi-purpose Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and the new Education City Stadium created for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. It is also working with clubs such as Everton, Leicester City and Nottingham Forest on new stadia and ambitious expansion plans.

Pottinger believes digital initiatives such as the one from AGF Aarhus will prove the most effective way of tackling some of the challenges posed by playing games behind closed doors. And he revealed to offthepitch.com that clubs in the Premier League, as well as the Bundesliga, are considering doing the same thing.

Andrew Pottinger from Büro Happold
Photo: PR Andy Pottinger, a director in the Sports and Entertainment team at Buro Happold, an international engineering consultancy which works with a number of clubs in the UK and across Europe.

“We’ve had conversations with clubs and operators along these lines, and they have all started with reservations but then progressed towards thinking ‘actually, it might be fun and there’s a potential revenue stream there’,” he says.

Clubs would look to charge for tickets on different levels, he explains. “Entry level ticket could be just getting your audio across. Premium level could be your audio and video in the stadium, and on the TV broadcast.”

...we’re going to have enough games like this to give a good evidence base for how fans influence football matches.

Pottinger notes that Borussia Mönchengladbach fans have been happy to pay €19 for cardboard cut-outs placed in their home ground for matches – with around 13,000 appearing in the stands for their home game against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday 23 May – “so I’m sure people would pay for this. Looking forward, this revenue stream could continue into the post-Covid future. Furthermore, the likes of Zoom and Teams would surely be desperate to get involved and showcase their product.”

Giving fans a voice

AGFs’ debuting of the concept went smoothly overall and was largely well-received, but Pottinger believes it will work most effectively when the sound from the fans is conveyed fully around the pitch and to the viewing audience on TV.

While acknowledging that “it is likely to start off as chaotic,” Pottinger suggests that this could “gradually develop into something surprisingly polished, given how creative and passionate football fans are.”

He adds: “Many people say the sound would be rubbish and confusing but nothing is insurmountable. Supporters groups could identify 200 or so people and get them to practice beforehand. Only yesterday I saw a choir singing together on Zoom, so why not?

“Intelligibility would be poor initially, but the noise would be there, the roar would be there. And I imagine that roar and feedback would make the experience more enjoyable for players and help their motivation, which must be difficult to maintain in an empty venue. After all, a more intense performance on the pitch will be a more enjoyable experience for fans off the pitch – or in this case on their sofas at home.”

Home disadvantage?

Such ideas are likely to be keenly pursued given the sharp reduction in home advantage seen in the first four rounds of Bundesliga matches following its return. Of the 36 games played so far, just eight have ended with a home win, with 18 away wins and 10 draws.

In addition, matches have had a different, slower rhythm. “There’s been more possession, fewer collisions, less panic and, arguably, less effort,” observes Pottinger.

The broadcasting experience has to be strong because, let’s face it, many of the remaining games in the top divisions are not that appealing to the neutral viewer, particularly in the Premier League, with the title all but decided.

While this may be due to players’ lack of match sharpness or a subconscious wariness about engaging in close contact, Pottinger notes that “we’re going to have enough games like this to give a good evidence base for how fans influence football matches. And then, as ideas get tried, like the one at Aarhus, it may also be possible to measure their success.”

He adds: “Could we see less possession, more collisions, more panic and more effort? That’s what many fans would prefer.”

Screens at both ends of the pitch

Buro Happold has developed a scientific understanding of how stadia perform for its clients, operators and end-users, and has quantified each element in its Venue Performance Rating (VPR) system.
As part of this system it has created 3D models of more than 70 stadium bowls, including for most of the grounds in the Premier League and Bundesliga. Pottinger reveals that his team is now using these to look at how the sound from fans on Zoom could be distributed into the stadium, and where to place the virtual stands.

“We believe it would need a big screen at each end behind the goal and temporary speakers all around the pitch,” he says. “For example, the sound coming from Tottenham Hotspur’s South Stand could be perceived by the players, and the celebrations for an away goal could be heard from the other end.”

While Aarhus placed three screens together to create its giant screen along one side of the pitch, in order to be visible to the TV cameras on the opposite side, Pottinger believes that screens behind the goal would be more effective.

“After a few minutes I suspect the players [in the Aarhus v Randers game] didn’t notice the screens like they would behind the goals,” he says.

While acknowledging that the delay between the TV feed and live action would be a challenge, Pottinger believes that temporary screens at both ends of the ground would enhance the connection with the players, adding: “I can imagine this visible support being used by the broadcasters, with them cutting to the montage of fans jumping up and down online, rather than cutting to the stands as they would ordinarily do.”

The value of authenticity

Since the Bundesliga returned to action, while much of the football has been compelling, the lack of atmosphere has been hard to ignore, even though some broadcasts have featured fake crowd noise.

After his team’s 4-0 victory over Schalke on Saturday 16 May, Borussia Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre commented: “There's no noise, you create a chance, you play a top pass, a goal and … nothing. It's very, very weird. We miss our fans very much. It was just a very different match.”

Nevertheless, record viewing figures on its return highlighted the thirst for live football in Germany and elsewhere. A total of 3.7 million Sky Deutschland pay TV subscribers watched the five matches, twice the normal amount, while 2.5 million tuned in to the free broadcast on Sky Sports News HD, according to German magazine Kicker.

Meanwhile, in the UK, BT Sport’s coverage of the Dortmund v Schalke game peaked at 652,000 viewers, with an average audience of 500,000, similar to the figures for some Premier League games shown by BT Sport earlier this season.

Looking ahead, Pottinger points out that the challenge for all leagues playing games behind closed doors is maintaining interest among TV viewers week in, week out, especially for those fixtures carrying little significance at either end of the table.

For those leagues planning to broadcast all their games live, such as the Premier League, he stresses that enhancing the experience of the viewer is particularly important.

I think the sweet spot is finding a way to make the broadcast experience more involving for the viewer, but not taking it into the realms of Hollywood or e-sports.

“The broadcasting experience has to be strong because, let’s face it, many of the remaining games in the top divisions are not that appealing to the neutral viewer, particularly in the Premier League, with the title all but decided. As we’ve seen over the years, the quality of the viewing experience is crucial to broadcasting, which is in turn crucial to club revenue.”

Pottinger also underlines the value of authenticity, and trying to limit what might be considered as fake. “For the TV audience, the broadcasters have the capability to fill the stands with virtual people making virtual noise, but would we want that? Do we want someone to turn on the Mo Salah chant after he scores a goal? In my view technology that creates a raw but real experience is far more likely to be successful than flash but fake.”

Other options for broadcasters include the use of augmented reality. OZ Sports and RVX Productions, which has provided solutions for numerous Hollywood blockbuster movies and TV series, last month launched a new solution which overlays a digital image on top of the empty stadium. It also enables fans to beam themselves into live broadcasts and provide their own audio.

“I’m sure this will be something that’s pursued in this experimental phase,” says Pottinger. However, he adds: “I think the sweet spot is finding a way to make the broadcast experience more involving for the viewer, but not taking it into the realms of Hollywood or e-sports. I strongly believe that the players need to hear the fans in some way. We have to find some way of keeping that connection. In my view, that connection is what football is all about.”