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Football risks ‘eating itself’ in the race for engagement, but digital may be a small part of the solution

(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images).

  • Explosion in screen time among young people causing social and behavioural problems
  • Screen time linked to low levels of sleep and physical activity
  • Uefa’s ‘digital to physical’ strategy uses mobile phones to get people playing football

In July 2017, public relations firm Burson-Marsteller published a report called Planet Football: Strategies for International Success, with contributions from clubs, leagues, federations, academics and consultants. Among the contributors was Alex Phillips, at the time Uefa’s head of Asia-Europe affairs and currently its head of governance and compliance.

Amid future-gazing about growth, globalisation and the healing power of football was a warning from Phillips. He imagined a point that passive consumption of the professional game would start to crowd out amateur participation in the sport. Fewer participants would ultimately lead to a less attractive professional game, with the result that football would be “effectively eating itself”.

On top of the wall-to-wall football offered by pay-television services around the world, football has embraced digital technology and social media in a huge way. Players, clubs, leagues, federations and confederations are now pumping out millions of hours of digital content a year to capture the attention of a new generation of fans.

It is unthinkable not to have a presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok and whatever new platform might be launched this week. No self-respecting football body does not have an esports operation. And everyone of a certain age plays FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer.

Sport knows the numbers. Over 400 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute and 1 billion hours of video is watched every day on the platform by its 1.9 billion users. Facebook’s 2.45 billion monthly active users rack up eight billion video views per day on the platform. Consumption is predominantly on mobile phones.

The logic is that sport must create content for these platforms because they are where young people now spend their time. But it is a vicious circle. The more attractive the digital content that gets produced, the more time people will end up spending on their screens. Sport is not just finding young people on a screen but driving young people to a screen.

Research in the US has found that children in the 8-18 age range spend an average of seven hours per day on a screen, against a recommended maximum of three hours. Children aged two to five years old are spending three hours per day on screens, compared to a recommended maximum of an hour.

Related problems range from diminished social skills and problem-solving ability to anxiety, depression and obesity. The scientific community is debating whether nomophobia – the fear of being without a mobile phone – should officially be classified as a mental health disorder.

In August 2019, Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences published research into the link between screen time, sleep and physical activity among British adolescents. It found that fewer than one in 10 adolescents – 9.7 per cent – met the recommended levels of sleep, screen time and physical activity. It concluded that “screen time was the main driver of not meeting all three recommendations”.

The report’s lead author, Dr. Natalie Pearson, has called for “strategies and policies” which address the relationship between these three activities.

She tells SportBusiness: “Given that adolescence is a time when health behaviours are most likely to become habitual, it is important that further research examines how these patterns of health behaviours evolve over time and how strategies can be developed to help adolescents live their healthiest lives.

“Given that time is finite, in that a 24-hour day is 24 hours, time spent in one of these behaviours (sleep, screen-time, physical activity) takes time away from time spent in another. Given that adolescents spend a large amount of their leisure time sedentary (and using screens), sports governing bodies could play a pivotal role in reducing screen-time by offering accessible physically active alternatives.”

Although there appears to be no specific research linking screen time to football activity, it does not seem a stretch of the imagination to see the tsunami of digital content as a long-term threat to participation in football, not just supervised football in clubs but spontaneous games in parks, streets and back gardens.

Uefa’s president has made this connection. In September, when unveiling an €11m Uefa investment in schools football, Aleksander Čeferin said: “When I was young and played football outside, our parents used to shout at us to come back into the house. Nowadays, we have to tell our children to leave the house and go and play. This is a problem – because they are on their mobile phones and playing on their computers. We can’t completely change this, but we have to try and address the issue.”

Uefa president, Aleksander Čeferin (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Digital to physical

Uefa is trying to address the issue through a strategy called ‘digital to physical’. Andrea Traverso, Uefa’s director of financial sustainability and research, tells SportBusiness that the concept was a simple one: “Turn digital consumption into physical activity.”

The underlying principle is not new. Online app stores are full of applications which allow people to use their mobile phones to monitor fitness levels, guide people from being couch-potatoes to running 5k and so on. Sport England’s hugely successful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign relied heavily on digital and social media. Even a best-selling game like Pokémon Go has a range of health benefits because it must be played outdoors. But Uefa’s ideas are football specific.

One of the first fruits of Uefa’s campaign will come from work the governing body’s ‘Innovation Hub’ is doing with digital start-up Formalytics on the creation of a Uefa Player Card, designed to motivate young players to keep playing football as well as watching it. The product – which will be available for free – will combine ball-tracking and people-tracking technology, enabling any grassroots player to build up a personal score and player profile that can be compared with that of other players or be used by clubs and even talent scouts.

Traverso says: “We have to understand how younger generations interact with sport and at the same time we need to encourage them to keep practising football on real pitches and not just virtually on screens; to maintain healthy growth in our sport as well as a healthy society, true football must continue to be rooted in that which is actually played on the pitch.”

Formalytics, one of three winners of Uefa’s Start-Up Challenge, launched in January 2019, says its mission is to “help grassroots footballers to get better, faster by measuring, benchmarking and improving the foundational skills required to be successful in the game”. Its products will enable anyone with a mobile phone “to test their skills by leveraging our artificial intelligence, computer vision and augmented reality platform through our app interfaces”.

The company showcased its technology at the Champions League final in Madrid in May, with former players using the company’s MyKicks app, which calculates the accuracy and speed of a penalty kick.

Initiatives like the Uefa Player Card are a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the problem. But they do suggest that the problem has at least been identified, which is a starting point.

“People consume sport differently today than only ten years ago,” Traverso says. “Especially the new young generations have changed their habits and the sport organisations have to adapt and seize the opportunities provided by this fast-changing environment. The Uefa innovation hub was established as a response to this.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. As Uefa said last month, when unveiling Formalytics and other winners of its Start-up Challenge: “Grassroots and participation are the bedrock of football because if people are not actively playing, then the sport will cease to exist.”

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