Digitalisation in sports: How is technology changing football?  

On 20 July, the Women's World Cup will kick off in Australia. Reason enough for us as a digitalisation magazine to examine how technologies are also changing this sport. Our conclusion: digitalisation is revolutionising both the way football is played and the interaction between clubs, fans and players. In the following, we take a look at different aspects of digital transformation in Germany's favourite ball sport - from pure organisation, communication with fans and optimisation of the players to the actual moment on the pitch.

Once upon a time ... good old analogue football. Since the German summer fairy tale in 2006, the digital transformation has hit this sport in every way. Technologies such as GPS trackers, augmented and virtual reality, and targeted data analysis have improved performance on the pitch. Players can be analysed more and more comprehensively and trained tactically. But it is not only the game itself that has changed; communication has also undergone significant change since then. Social media, mobile apps and virtual applications engage fans more intensively - even when they are in the stadium anyway. Thus, the on-site experience is enhanced by the smartphone and digital services. Football has successfully entered the digital era and more exciting developments are waiting in the wings. First and foremost, the expanded integration of AI technologies.

Fan experiences are diverse

There are different ways to watch a football match. There are the so-called legacy fans who swear by the classic purist experience in the stadium. Predominantly young football spectators, on the other hand, the stadium experience alone is often no longer enough. Instead of sitting through the less dynamic 90-minute moments on the pitch, they reach for their smartphone to get their portion of extra moments along the game. Watching highlight clips, getting information on their favourite player on social media or looking at the latest data on scoring rates - the main thing is to be entertained. The results of an online survey conducted in autumn 2022 confirm that this trend is taking place: on an importance scale of 1 (very important) to 5 (unimportant), the respondents of the German Football League rated the importance of digital fan experiences at 3.47 on average. The results of the study also revealed that the vast majority of spectators at the venues do not want to be overloaded with digital solutions. Under no circumstances should these distract from the actual core of the event.

So what digital added values are desired?

The answers given by fans in this survey were not spectacular. Things like ticketing, admission control, security and payment were mentioned. In addition, the following things were also mentioned in the survey: visitor information, catering and traffic guidance on arrival and departure. Apart from these practical organisational features, sports fans also have initial ideas that are specifically related to the matches. Accordingly, there is interest in being able to individually compile individual matches of the league conference or to follow the communication of the referees. The vision of creating a virtual space by means of digital stadium twins in order to gain location-sovereign access to the games was somewhat more restrained in the overall result. However, the more the metaverse finds its way into our everyday lives, the more likely this idea will eventually become reality.

That additional digital applications at home and in the stadium enhance the experience of fans in sport was already suggested by the 2019 study "Emerging Technology in Sports: Reimagining the Fan Experience" by Capgemini Research Institutes. Digital technology was rated by 69% of respondents (Germany: 66%) as an integral part of the sports experience.

The smart station bundles many requirements  

In fact, the big clubs are already working to bring themselves up to the latest digital standards. Eintracht Frankfurt, for example, founded its subsidiary Eintracht-Tech in 2019 to develop and bundle new digital projects. In addition to building a digital ecosystem and app, the six core areas of work include "eSports", "Digital Events", "Talents of Tomorrow" and "Arena IoT". This last area alone contains a multitude of possibilities for shaping the pitch and match operations in a forward-looking way with the help of digital technology. For example, a smart watering system for the pitch that saves energy and water and provides the players with a surface on which they are less likely to injure themselves. The fans should also benefit from the developments. For example, through smart parking and queue management, improved stadium navigation, powerful emergency management and much more. However, the use of biometric facial recognition, which is already being used here and there around the world, is likely to be a long time coming in German stadiums due to the legal situation. In fact, this technology can be viewed critically.

The game and the player are increasingly being measured

Video analysis in football is nothing new. It records the game in such a way that decisive scenes can subsequently provide valuable conclusions about the course of the game. Whereas the evaluations used to take quite a bit of time, the essentials can now be worked out in seconds at the touch of a button with the help of artificial intelligence. Innovative technology is thus coming into focus not only for the game itself, but also for the players themselves. By means of so-called GPS upper body belts, important data is collected, put into context and the connections in the course of the game thus become more transparent for the individual. The evaluated data of the personal movement profiles also help to derive individual instructions for action and, in the course of this, to coordinate tactical training in a more targeted manner. TSG Hoffenheim, for example, has been using the training video game Helix since 2020. This is used to train the players' cognitive skills in a kind of metaverse arena. A first indication of what the football training of the future could look like.

Of course, medical data such as heart rate, reaction time or breathing rate are also recorded by the players and evaluated with the help of AI. This allows conclusions to be drawn about the state of health, but also about performance factors that can be decisive for the game as a whole. Even emotional conclusions through AI technology are now possible. Here, however, one may ask whether the evaluation of such performance parameters is still okay or whether this is a step too far.

After all, AI technology also helps to analyse the opponent and his game in detail or, more and more often, to find the right young players.

Digital fan communication across all borders 

It is hardly surprising that communication between clubs and their fans is already enormously digital. Here, too, the pandemic has provided an additional boost: During the suspended match operations and the subsequent phase of ghost matches without an audience, new formats were developed to maintain communication with the fans. For the major Bundesliga clubs, club apps for communication are now just as much a part of the process as well-managed and moderated social media channels. A nice side effect is that the digital communication possibilities are growing the fan base not only at home, but also internationally.

Will AI soon reach the commentary booth? 

In cooperation with ARD Sportschau, the WDR Innovation Lab experimented with AI-driven match reporting. The goal was to have the AI automatically write match reports on Bundesliga matches by already compiling the data needed for this from various sources during the match. The first approach was based on the use of ChatGPT3. The result was modest. As a result, they created their own AI prototype, which they are now using to try it out again. But perhaps football is too complex and emotional to realise coverage with the generative language models currently on the market.

Digitalisation kicks football into the future 

Be that as it may. The digitalisation wave in football will continue to roll and will stop at nothing that is connected with it. Not even the round leather itself, as the official match ball of the 2022 World Cup, which is packed with networked technology, has shown us.

In addition to this level of digitalisation in football, there is another level that has not yet been mentioned: that of e-soccer. The DFB has recognised the potential and in March 2020 launched, a platform where fans can register to experience the digital dimension of football together with others. The ERGO Team Finder tool also helps with this. The pandemic period was certainly a driver. But anyone who thinks that this is merely serving a niche that will disappear again could be proven wrong in the not too distant future. eSports in general are becoming more and more popular. The potential is huge.

Regardless of whether it is digital or analogue, one thing remains typical for football: it connects - also in the future, just differently than in the past. Let's see what innovations in digital technology we can marvel at during next year's European Football Championship in German stadiums.

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