Manchester United vs. Chelsea: Who will win at sports tech?

It is the morning after transfer day. Manchester United have been wrung out to dry by the press for what appears to be massive disorganisation in their processes. Now, the club’s holding a press conference in the Evolution suite at Old Trafford football ground to announce their new – highly efficient – digitisation strategy. There are canapés and flutes of champagne.

“Technology is really important to us,” says goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, perched on a stool beside four Manchester United team mates. He and colleagues Ander Herrera, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard then proceed to mumble the standard chat about Twitter, constant travel and the importance of social media for keeping up with fans…

So far, so samey. Everyone knows players and clubs use technology and social media. Everyone also knows just many companies fail when it comes to lack of clear top level direction. Yet digitisation –with a proper strategy in place from the top – can make everything more efficient very quickly. And this is precisely what Manchester United is trying to do with its fan experience, by announcing its first official digital transformation partner, Indian firm, HCL Technologies.

The aim, explains Richard Arnold Manchester United’s Group Managing Director, is to “improve the overall experience of those who connect with us”.

In practice this will mean a new United Xperience lab housed at Old Trafford – HCL has six similar labs across different industries around the world – but this will be its first in sport. It plans to use this platform to consolidate all digital experiences, such as the website, mobile operations and its apps, into one centralised hub.

Once the base is in place there will be a lot of room for digital experimentation – such as virtual reality and enhanced viewing experiences. These will be based on data profiling of fans and analytical targeting.

“We will only work with Manchester United as a football team,” Jaco Van Eeden, EVP of HCL’s new Beyond Digital Business arm, tells IDG Connect. This is a huge opportunity for HCL to experiment with a very large, extremely passionate customer base and potentially win in the new and highly lucrative field of sports tech.

Two English clubs go head-to-head on digitisation?

Yet Manchester United is by no means the only player in the field. This could also offer a similar opportunity for another Indian firm Wipro, as the next day – yesterday – Chelsea Football Club issued almost identical news in its partnership with Wipro. This will “transform their digital journey, fan engagement and in-stadia experience” reads the press release. And even the promotional photos look exactly the same.

The “vision is to integrate the physical and the digital”, Avinash Rao Global Business Head at Wipro Digital, tells IDG Connect. The aim is to build “a continuous fan experience” to “make Chelsea the most digitally advanced sports brand globally”.

So, what does all this mean? Well, first of all both clubs have extremely engaged fans and an awful lot of money. According to Forbes’ World 2015 Richest Football clubs Manchester United comes in third with a value of $3.10 billion, while Chelsea comes in sixth at a value of $1.36 billion. Deloitte’s Football Money League 2015 places Manchester United second in terms of yearly revenue ($581m) and Chelsea seventh ($430m).

A sports battle for the Indian tech giants?

And what about their partners? Well, as huge Indian IT giants, Wipro and HCL are also routinely pitted against each other. A comparison guide published by equity research firm Equity Master a few days ago shows HCL has lower sales, revenues and assets. But also has a higher share price, which has steadily climbed over the last five years, unlike Wipro’s which has steadily declined.  

Yet financials aside, the challenges of digitisation are exactly the same in sport as they are every other industry. Here at IDG Connect, we get pitched with digitisation stories from all sides and they are always pretty much the same. And yet in sport it really could be a wider game changer because consumers are happier to be targeted. Unlike banks, say, people love these brands.

“Most people see digital as a sprint exercise,” explains Van Eeden of HCL. However, because consumer expectations are constantly updating with each new piece of kits released, he adds, “we see it as a marathon”.

Whatever kind of race this is though, it is a race. And the club that can innovate in football tech first is likely to remain digital leader in the industry. In fact, competitive listicles are already emerging about which clubs have the best social media campaigns. Manchester United has been singled out for its #MUFrontRow campaign in partnership with Google. While a blog by David Moth at Econsultancy, published last October, covered the six Premier League clubs with the best digital strategies, included Manchester United but not Chelsea.

This is extremely relevant because many people feel football has been a bit of a laggard behind other sports. Goal-line tech is still relatively new, for example. And at the Old Trafford event, football legend Denis Irwin says he believes it could be five to 10 years before technology to help referees with the offside rule becomes commonplace. Yet Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey was talking about just how necessary this is only a few weeks’ back.

Rao of Wipro disagrees, however. He feels football isn’t more challenging than other games and isn’t behind. He simply fees “different sports just have different nuances”.

Whatever the case, transformation is going to happen in football, as in every other sport and it is going to make some people a lot of money. It is just a case of who and how.

A close match over digital delivery?

This means, in the end, this is a delivery race. Van Eeden describes how at Manchester United the first nine weeks post-announcement will be used to map out exactly what is required. This will form a solid framework to build upon.

It is hard to pin down a timeframe but “months not years,” says Van Eeden guessing at a new website in early 2016.

Rao focuses on the seamless integration of offline and online experiences and offers practical examples of what this might mean. He suggests a fan may arrive at Stamford Bridge where their Apple Watch will help them find their seat. Through the game they might then we able to see all the performance stats of players in real-time.

In truth neither really know how all this is going to pan out. Both IT companies and football clubs are embarking on a similar journey and like any project the end result will be subject to the usual real-life wins and losses. Success will hinge on data, implementation… and the way the fans react.

The final experience will “depend on the investment”, says Van Eeden a number of times. And it is hard to argue with this point. Maybe Manchester United is tipped to win then? After all throwing down cash is something they are extremely good at.


More stories on sports tech:

Could a computer have discovered football legend Ian Wright?

Kansas American football team adopts tech mouthguards

Tampa Bay Lightning skate to where the puck is going with tech for fans

Rugby fans tackle wearable tech via Accenture Google Glass project


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