Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Future of Football: Ticketing Apps and Livestreaming

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to rumble on, many industries are predicting what their futures may look like – whether that’s offices who want to establish a more flexible way of working (as employees divide time between the office and home), schools testing out new contact systems, through to pubs and bars that have established table service arrangements – we’re living in a time of experimentation.

Football is no different – this weekend (19th September), some experiments are going ahead in the EFL with a maximum of 1000 people attending select games. Non-League has been back for a few weeks now but even at these levels, maximum capacities and experimentation is happening.

As the last groundhop I did before lockdown, I returned to Ashton Town this week to have a look at the innovations they put in place for their first home game back – how will they affect games at these levels going forward? Well, that and a Wigan Athletic legend making his debut for the club encouraged me to go too!

Emmerson Boyce, the 40-year-old former Wigan Athletic captain, who lifted the FA Cup in 2013, signed for Ashton Town 3 weeks ago  – saying it was a ‘thank-you’ to chairman Mark Hayes for his years of charity work. Ashton have big ambitions for promotion this season (also appointing former Chesterfield striker, Glynn Hurst, as manager) and this signing made waves on the non-league scene. The capacity for this match was set at 150 – while this is certainly far more than the average crowd 10th-tier Ashton get, they would have got far more in if no restrictions were in place. And it was all marshalled by a new Manchester-based ticketing app, Shocal.

The lockdown has undoubtedly provided the perfect opportunity for these types of apps to grow their user base (I’m absolutely pig sick of seeing that Just Eat advert with Snoop Dogg – and no, I’m not linking to it) – and Shocal have moved quickly in an attempt to establish themselves as ‘the home of local deliveries’ for a range of different business in Greater Manchester. They aren’t the only home delivery app that has created a ticketing arm – I’ve seen other non-league sides promoting different ones – but I believe Shocal is one of very few that offer partners more than just an avenue to sell tickets. In fact, Ashton have put their entire club shop on the app – you can buy season tickets, scarves, player sponsorship and a plethora of Emmerson Boyce memorabilia on there.

For football clubs, having a means to make the purchasing process easier will help to promote them, working to increase their revenue – customers appreciate a quick, no-nonsense way of finding what they need above everything else. Mobile phone apps (especially ones that work!) offer such convenience – and I’m pleased to report that Shocal offered a seamless, secure way of buying my ticket (I was even tempted by the Emmerson Boyce cushion they had in the shop too). On approach to the ground, the representative of Shocal scanned the QR code on my phone and I was in – no waiting around, no fishing in my pocket for the right change; straight in to beat the queue at the bar for my can-of-Carling-in-a-plastic-cup. Yep, still no Leffe behind the bar.

Whist having the club shop on an app is great for non-league sides to potentially increase their revenue on a more consistent basis, it should go without saying that ticketing apps won’t be needed for the vast majority of games at this level. However, I won’t be surprised to see ticketing apps brought forward into the professional ranks in the next year or two. As someone who has apps for buses, taxis and Wetherspoons, I’m actually a bit surprised they haven’t been introduced already – the ordering ease they provide can’t be questioned. Not great news for paper tickets – as a collector myself, it’ll be a shame to see these physical reminders go, but with the time and money it costs to produce, print and send them out, it doesn’t make sense to keep doing it.

Another experiment that was conducted for this match was a livestream. Broadcasting games over the internet is nothing new, but the pandemic has provided an opportunity for service providers, leagues and clubs to experiment with it on a mass level. As a groundhopper, you can probably guess that I’m against streaming and television in general – I don’t think the way it has influenced the game (changing kick-off times, encouraging people to not go to the match, growing a generation of fans who have never been to a match, who then label clubs as ‘tinpot’ for having empty seats, etc) has been positive – but we mustn’t kid ourselves any different; just like the ticketing apps, they provide a quick and convenient way of watching football.

For the professional level, I’m very worried about the effect it’ll have when things eventually (hopefully!) get back to normal. Despite a few boomer hiccups with the EFL’s iFollow service, it has generally been a success in providing fans with access to games. Before the pandemic, football games held at 3pm were not allowed to be streamed in the UK to protect crowd numbers – but as we’ve seen through the rise of streaming services and YouTube, the money is moving from television into the streaming market – Amazon already have a Premier League TV deal and will no doubt be pushing for more slices of the Sky/BT pie in the next few years.

If television has the power to move games, streaming companies will be powerful enough to dictate what they want too – it isn’t inconceivable that a streaming company will come in with a big offer for the EFL and as many of clubs (including my own) are currently on their arse, it stands to sense they’d submit to anything asked of them. Unless clubs let people in for free, I can’t ever see the vast majority of stadiums being anywhere near full – again though, it makes perfect sense; people don’t want to travel to games, spend extra money on programmes and catering when they are able to watch it from the comfort of their own home.

Emmerson Boyce in debut action for Ashton Town

 So where does that leave non-league clubs? Here at Ashton Town, they provided those who couldn’t get a ticket with an opportunity to stream the match for £1 – and 362 took them up on that offer. I have no idea of the cut they may have got, but let’s just say it was half – that’s £131 going to a club that usually gets 50 people on the gate (add that to 150 who were the game, and that’s over 500 people watching a game between a 10th tier side and an amateur club). The signing of Emmerson Boyce was the obvious attraction, which is why (beyond the odd curiosity like a former pro in action or a big match), I can’t see the streaming of non-league games lasting long-term – there simply isn’t a big pre-existing audience there to tap into. The attraction of non-league football is the ground and what you experience there, so unless they bring in some virtual reality app that recreates everything (the smell of the mud, the materials of the wonky stand, a dog pissing on an advertisement board, etc), the same people will continue to go these games.

However, just like how the shop app provides a way for non-league sides to promote themselves, I think the streaming of matches in non-league can give a curious local the opportunity to see a side in action, potentially encouraging them to go one day or at the very least, buy an Emmerson Boyce keyring. It’s how you use the technology that matters – and as these experiments continue, I hope clubs and leagues are able to find a way of encouraging people back to games, rather than presenting them with reasons to stay on this ‘new normal’, streaming games long after the pandemic is over.

As for the match itself, it was great to see Boycey back playing football – he’s obviously a legend at Wigan for his 9 years service and winning the FA Cup, but he’s a great man to boot; always willing to get involved with local community projects and charity work. Playing at centre-half, he marshalled his new side to a 5-1 win over Orrell Athletic – who despite playing their football many levels below their hosts in the South Lancs League, put up a great show. They certainly scored the goal of the game when their forward lobbed the Ashton goalkeeper from just inside the penalty area!

While the signing of Boycey can be seen as great marketing for the club, his ability and experience will undoubtedly help Ashton on the pitch too. Straight from kick-off, he was rallying his teammates and dishing out instructions – just by this brief insight, I can only imagine playing alongside him will encourage players, getting the most out of their own abilities and even help to improve their own game. I hope more former professionals consider similar moves; if grassroots clubs are given the means by the FA to offer a way into coaching for them, I’m sure we may see more of this.

As it turned it, the experiment on this night was a success; everyone had a great time, easily socially distancing in the 2,000-capacity ground and the ice cream van parked inside the ground even played the Match of the Day theme for our half-time entertainment. Ashton have already got tickets on the app for their opening league home match against St. Helens Town in October, with a maximum of 300 now allowed in – so I made sure to snap one up.

Here’s hoping the professional clubs are just as successful with their own experiments so we can all get to games as safely as possible. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for the television and livestreaming.


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