The rollout of 5G technology across Europe and the US is promising to transform fan engagement, offering rights-holders new ways to monetise their assets and presenting brands with the opportunity to become part of a team’s fabric by associating themselves with in-stadium activities rather than traditional sponsorship forms.
The US is often at the forefront of in-stadia entertainment and innovation, with the likes of the NFL, NBA and MLB, putting fans at the heart of the action and interacting with them via apps and offering special perks to those in attendance.
Approximately half of the NFL teams are currently deploying 5G in some capacity, but it remains in the early stages and often only certain parts of the venues can access the network.
Though changing rapidly, the market is still quite immature in the UK and Europe, with fans often spending little time inside stadia before or after the match. Reports have suggested that elite football clubs across Europe are working with network providers to see how they can utilise 5G in the long-term.
It is German Bundesliga club VfL Wolfsburg, however, who are setting the trend in Europe. Currently in the process of trialling their 5G app, Wolfsburg are focused on putting fans at the heart of the game and providing them with in-game features such as enhanced match statistics and player performance data.
With broadcast and over-the-top media providers giving fans at home in-depth coverage of every aspect of the matchday, teams need to give spectators a reason to attend the match and 5G will undoubtedly work alongside virtual reality and augmented reality to add value to the overall fan experience.
As well as offering fans real-time replays and other live match incentives, 5G could also provide spectators with information and data that improves their experience around the game.
An example of this would be using the technology to guide fans towards an area of the bar where there is a smaller queue during half time or using an app that allows spectators to place an order from their seat.
This would help to reduce waiting times in venues that will in turn help stadium owners to generate more revenue.
Recent research from network provider Vodafone revealed that more than three quarters of business leaders from sports organisations see improving fan engagement – and delivering new and innovative fan experiences – as key to future success, with 5G, more than any other technology, helping to drive change and enable such experiences.
As we have seen in the NFL, it’s very likely that we will see 5G technology being widely deployed and tested in US venues initially before it is fully rolled out across Europe and other territories.
This has been a trend for a number of years now, with the US often trying out new innovations in other areas that impact the fan experience, such as the Tunnel Club Premium Seating concept that has now been replicated by football clubs such as Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Tottenham Hotspur.
Last month, the Dallas Cowboys launched their revolutionary ‘Pose with the Pros’ feature at AT&T Stadium as part of their 5G experiences for fans.
A video of fans posing to take their picture taken in the venue went viral and quickly showed the capabilities and opportunities that exist with this new technology.
Other features introduced by the Cowboys included a virtual game that involves dodging defensive robots, and an app that allows fans to record their own touchdown dance over a 3D video that looks like players are dancing right next to them.
Over time, these fan engagement activations are going to offer increased commercial opportunities for stadium owners, clubs and sponsors.
I do not think it will be long until we see brands associating their names with these experiential activations, as well as fans being rewarded with gifts and perks for unlocking certain levels or features on apps.
If you’re selling sponsorship for a stadium or a team then the introduction of 5G as part of an activation platform makes it a very compelling offer.
It will be interesting to see how long it takes to deploy 5G in UK stadia, with the majority of venues having been around for several decades and possibly unable to integrate the technology in their existing capacities.
For some fans, it is more commonplace to simply have a food and drinks experience, chat to their friends and watch the match, but if you want to appeal to different types of customers and drive attendance to your venue, then you need to look at developing elements that can be complementary to the match experience.
It will take time until we see the full extent of the capabilities that 5G will bring to stadia around the world, but the early signs have certainly been promising.
If you think of the leap from 3G to 4G technology as a day-to-day experience, then the gap has been massive, and we can now access content on our mobile devices and tablets instantly wherever we go.
As with all new technologies and innovations, I don’t think anyone can be entirely sure of where this will take us as consumers and brands, but 5G is here to stay and looks set to play an important role in shaping fan engagement over the coming years.