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Vodafone and Bundesliga bridge gap between stadium and living room with 5G first

Guest test the new DFL and Vodafone App with the latest 5G connections standard during the Bundesliga match between VfL Wolfsburg and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Volkswagen Arena on September 23, 2019 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images)

  • Fans can view player data through AR app
  • App is part of sponsorship deal with Vodafone
  • Bundesliga hoping to license the technology

Two months after announcing their collaboration to bring 5G mobile technology to venues across Germany, the Bundesliga and telecoms giant Vodafone launched what they claimed was a world-first in football, using 5G to deliver a real-time, in-stadium augmented reality experience to selected guests during Monday night’s clash between Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim.

Enabled by a 5G antenna at Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena, the first to be enabled at football venue in the country, as well as some of the few commercially available 5G handsets, the Bundesliga and Vodafone offered an early demonstration of the next major leap in fan experience.

“As the DFL [the body which operates the Bundesliga], we always try to generate the best possible, most innovative media product for TV and the media partners we work with,” says Andreas Heyden, chief executive of DFL Digital Sports, making reference to the league being the first to broadcast in ultra-HD 4k and 3D. “Now we are simply taking that approach towards the fan inside the stadium, asking ourselves, ‘how can we use technology to extend the experience in the stadium?’”

The app is disarmingly simple, and effectively brings the kind of on-screen graphics used by major broadcasters to the live experience. Simply point a 5G-enabled device at the pitch and the app then allows users to view the line-ups in the formations they are using on the pitch, tap on individual players to track in-game statistics, and view historic data. Thanks to the speed and low-latency of the 5G network, the movements of each player, the referee and the ball are updated 25 times each second and relayed to the user’s device near-instantaneously.

Andreas Heyden, chief executive, DFL Digital Sports (left) and Michael Reinartz, chief innovation officer, Vodafone Germany at the launch. (Alexander Koerner/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images)

The technology in the demonstration seen by SportBusiness is impressively responsive, genuinely working in real time to display match data, though at this early stage the numbers provided by the app are rudimentary – showing basic stats such as distance covered, current running speed and number of passes completed – without necessarily adding a crucial further level of understanding to the game.

But, as both Vodafone and the DFL make clear, this is an early testing stage rather than a finished app, and the next two years will see the technology handed over to “real users” to find out what the best use cases are and what requirements the final product will need to meet.

“We will test and have discussions with the ultras, with the families in the hospitality suites, with different fan groups coming to the games,” says Heyden. “We want to find out about their experience and what we need to do differently or more of.”

Living room and stadium converge

The DFL isn’t worried about the impact the technology might have on the live football experience; indeed, with ‘second-screening’ increasingly the norm for broadcast viewers who follow the action on a TV screen while keeping track of statistics and social media on a phone or tablet, Heyden feels it may help to attract younger fans to visit stadiums, as well as offering brand new fans an easier way to learn about the game while enjoying the live experience.

“Firstly, it’s an offer which you’re not obliged to take,” he notes. “If you just want to watch the game, you can watch the game. It’s all about enhancement of the experience. If you feel that you’re missing information, we’re giving it to you. We are starting by aiming this at the younger, tech-oriented fan.

“But when I am at games, I’m sat in the family block with my two kids and they are asking me questions that I can’t answer. I’m not that young anymore, but I am technically-oriented, so it can offer something to the people like me as well.”

One of the biggest points of inspiration, particularly for the user interface and design of the app, has been video games. As traditional sports continue to work out how the rise of esports will impact their ability to attract younger fans, greater convergence between the two worlds is inevitable, says Heyden.

“There is a whole generation coming up who learn everything they know about football from Fifa or from Pro Evolution Soccer, and they expect their experience of football to be closer to those games,” he says. “They know their data, and they are used to having that data in real time, and we want to satisfy that demand. There is no point fighting against this, we have to move towards where the young fans are and what they need to see from us.”

Guest test the new DFL and Vodafone App with the latest 5G connections standard during the Bundesliga match between VfL Wolfsburg and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at the Volkswagen Arena. (Alexander Koerner/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images)

Similarly, he suggests that the app can help to fill the natural downtime in games caused due to stoppages – particularly those caused by the recent implementation of the video-assistant referee, which can occasionally cause breaks of several minutes while a decision is reached, often without fans even knowing what is being checked. “There are always situations in a game where there are pauses, and in these kind of situations we want to give the fans the possibility to gain knowledge of the game and better experience and understand what is happening in this momentum,” says Heyden.

Business platform as well as technology showcase

Michael Reinartz, chief innovation officer of Vodafone Germany, says his company approached the Bundesliga about a partnership after identifying football as a perfect mass audience showcase for its technology. Since launching its network in Germany, Vodafone has demonstrated “an airship by Airbus being tele-operated using 5G, a tele-operated train, and the first 5G-enabled factory,” says Reinartz. “But they are all enterprise cases. With the Bundesliga, we are showing the first consumer-centric case where really the end-consumer gets a notion of where this could lead and what kind of solutions will be made possible by 5G. The DFL is similarly-minded to Vodafone in showing firsts, and that’s why we found each other.”

For the Bundesliga, retaining a reputation for innovation is crucial, but so is the ability to “own the value chain,” as Heyden puts it, and licence the technology. Another “major partnership” centred on the development of the AR app is set to be announced in the coming weeks, while he also confirms that the technology that underpins the platform will be made available as an open SDK, allowing clubs, stadium operators and other DFL stakeholders to build on it and integrate into their own apps.

“Like all our innovations, we start with the user, try to satisfy the user,” says Heyden. “Then we try to find the business model afterwards. We are building a technology ecosystem upon which partners can build their products.”

Reinartz adds that at this stage, with 5G still in its infancy and few devices available commercially, the project is about developing awareness for what the technology can achieve. But over the long-term the partnership with the Bundesliga is expected to offer an effective marketing platform as well.

“It’s both about building our image and adding subscribers to our network,” he says. “Whenever we judge innovations, there is always what we call a ‘connect to cash’. We do not do innovation just for the sake of doing innovation. We want to have a thoroughly designed business model behind doing it, so, yes, we use this partnership to show what our network can do, but also in the belief that people will then want to get onto our network and use the technology.”

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