If the people in charge at Manchester City have their way, you will soon be able to experience a home game of the English champions in your own living room. As if you were there live. As the first football club in the world, City wants to replicate its stadium in a virtual world, the Metaverse. Fans should then only have to put on special glasses to feel like they are in the right stadium. And the club can sell unlimited tickets in its virtual arena. Roughly speaking, that’s the plan.
Digitization is also changing a lot in football: the technical possibilities, the media use of young fans. The futurologist Marcel Aberle from the Zukunftsinstitut in Frankfurt am Main and Vienna does not believe “that a virtual stadium experience can ever replace a real stadium experience”. However, he warns German professional football in particular not to oversleep these technical developments. Because a generation that grows up with smartphones and social media no longer wants to watch a sporting event passively for just 90 minutes.
“Soccer clubs are in competition with all other experience industries, not just other soccer clubs. And I often have the feeling that a lot of people don’t understand that yet,” said Aberle.
In March, he attended a Brooklyn Nets basketball game in the United States. It was “amazing what you do there in terms of interaction with and loyalty to the viewers,” said the IT expert. “Each fan could project his own video from his mobile phone onto the big screen in the hall.” In football, on the other hand, he sees “a lot of leeway and zero creativity” in this regard.
The German Football League, the umbrella organization for the 36 professional clubs, has recognized the problem. “We have incredibly great opportunities ahead of us,” said Managing Director Donata Hopfen at the “Sports Innovation 2022” technology trade fair in Düsseldorf. At an “innovation game” between 1. FC Köln and AC Milan in July, the pros are supposed to wear a camera on their bodies so that the spectators can also follow the game from their perspective. Because Hopfen’s claim is: “We want to be the most digital football league in the world.”
The only question is who else represents this claim in German football. Because modernization in general and digitization in particular is a topic that some fan curves and clubs are openly opposed to. As if the question were: modernity or tradition? And not about: how do the two fit together? “Football takes place offline” was the message on a stadium banner during the Eintracht Frankfurt – SC Freiburg game in April.
When it comes to the future of this sport, there is hardly a club in the Bundesliga that is as advanced as VfL Wolfsburg. VfL no longer sees itself as just a classic club to which you bind yourself by means of a membership application and membership fee. But rather as a “360-degree platform” that networks with as many other institutions as possible.
“There are 350 clubs within an hour’s drive of Wolfsburg, 200 of which have a partnership with us,” explained Managing Director Michael Meeske. “These clubs receive ticket contingents from us, purchase price discounts from our suppliers, trainer training, management training for division managers, online seminars, small tournaments with subsequent stadium visits.”
Meeske also knows that the fact that there is more money and shorter distances at the VW site in Wolfsburg makes things easier for VfL on this topic. But the former managing director of FC St. Pauli is fundamentally concerned with the question of how to keep children involved in sport in the future. “Football that only wants to be an offer for purists will become a niche topic in the long run and – I believe – will be less and less compatible with the masses,” he said. “There will always be a target audience for it. But it’s getting smaller and smaller.”
There is an example of this in the USA, which cannot be compared 1:1 with football, but which nevertheless has an alarming effect on Meeske. Baseball was the national sport of the 20th century in America – until, unlike American football and its successful professional league NFL, it failed to open up to a young target group.
Baseball games sometimes last three hours. Young people often find them boring. And so the decisive game of last baseball season in the USA was watched by only 11.75 million television viewers, while the Super Bowl was watched by 99 million. The most famous baseball pro Mike Trout is followed by 1.9 million people on Instagram. Football star Odell Beckham Jr. has 16 million.
But back to football. There, the Munich graphic designer Mirko Borsche was commissioned to design a new logo for the Italian club Inter Milan. His multi-award-winning studio has previously worked for the Venice Biennale and the clothing brand Supreme in New York. But never for a football customer.
“Inter President Steven Zhang was only 27 at the time and thinks much more digitally,” said Borsche. “The aim of the new coat of arms was to create quick recognition. When looking at the tables of sports sites or the offers of bookmakers on a mobile device, a club crest should be immediately recognizable. As more and more people watch matches on their phones, the logo needs to be visible on players’ chests as well.”
Borsche’s team therefore changed the shade of blue and removed two of the four letters from the coat of arms. The response of many fans was very critical (“I now know almost every Italian swear word”). But after this “rebranding” it wasn’t even a year before Inter signed a contract with an Italian high-end fashion brand, because the new brand identity is now so modern.
About the coats of arms of the German clubs he says: “HSV, 2nd division! Otherwise, hardly anyone can meet the modern demands on a visual appearance.” And so the graphic designer Borsche, the futurologist Aberle and the football manager Meeske look at German professional football from three different perspectives, but all come to a similar conclusion. “Football clubs are often very poorly positioned at the strategic level,” said Aberle.