When a gripping sporting event is unfolding right in front of you, should you be looking down at your phone instead? Manchester City FC, last year’s Premier League soccer champions, are positively encouraging that behavior with their new app.
City MatchDay launched last week for Android and iOS as a way for fans to tap into the excitement of a home game, wherever they are in the world. I was invited along City’s Etihad Stadium yesterday to try it out during a derby game against local rivals and international megabrand Manchester United.
Another conference. “Great.”
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The centerpiece of the new app is three live video feeds that are produced by a small dedicated in-house team. The first, CityTV Live, can be viewed by fans all over the world for free.
The CityTV Live show, produced specifically for the app, starts an hour before the match, featuring interviews with squad members, pre-match predictions from fans and live link-ups with supporter’s clubs around the world. There’s also halftime analysis from fans and experts and a feed from the manager’s press conference after the game ends.
During the match, fans can listen to live BBC commentary within the app, accompanied by footage of the crowd in what City is calling a ‘fan reaction’ view. Rights issues around coverage of live matches means that in-game footage (at least for this channel) are a no-no. A sea of faces won’t always be very interesting, but at least it’s better than nothing for fans who can’t be at a game, helping them feel part of the action.
Rights issues aren’t as much of a problem for people inside the stadium though, and City MatchDay boasts two other video channels available only to people connected to the stadium’s own Wi-Fi network.
Having carefully followed the rules around screening live Premier League match footage, Manchester City allows fans inside the Etihad Stadium to watch a feed of match highlights, plus a ‘tactical camera’ view of the whole pitch from high up in the stadium, giving those in lower seats more of an aerial perspective on the action. Both feeds can be rewound by 30 seconds, so there’s another chance to catch events you may have missed.
Beyond live video, the app’s Windows Phone-alike menu (despite the app not being available for that platform) offers access to a liveblog of the whole day starting from the pre-match buildup, a photo gallery and live in-game statistics. There are also interactive games that let fans guess the starting squad and full-time score and vote for Man of the Match. There are also ‘Be the Ref’ polls on key match events, like whether a player deserved a yellow card or not.
Behind the scenes
The club aren’t sharing the amount of money that is going into the app’s development and matchday content. Manchester City’s Director of Media & Fan Relationship Management, Diego Gigliani stopped short of calling the financial investment in City MatchDay ‘significant’, preferring to describe it as a strategic investment in an opportunity to engage with fans in the digital realm.
Compared to how much money could have been spent if City – one of the world’s most valuable clubs – wanted to, the setup is actually quite lightweight.
Gigliani says that just “seven or eight” people work on the app’s content on matchdays. To save on requiring a squad of camera operators, remote-controlled cameras have been installed in key locations around the stadium. These allow a team in the stadium’s video gallery to pull in footage of players coming on and off the pitch, grab interviews with fans, VIPs and players and the like. Although they’re fixed in location, the cameras can be panned 360 degrees by the operators.
So what’s the app like to use at a game?
During the match, I took the app for a spin and found it a conflicting experience – on one hand it was useful to be able to take part in quick polls about in-game events and check key live stats about each team’s performance. The video feeds, on the other hand, felt a little at odds with the live football experience.
When you’re watching a match live in a stadium, the idea of looking down to check a replay feels a little jarring. Unlike some sports, soccer has few significant breaks in the action – watching a replay on your phone means you might miss the next goal happening live right in front of you.
The commentary meanwhile, although no doubt very useful to fans elsewhere in the world, doesn’t really work when you’re surrounded by shouting, singing fans. It was too quiet to hear even with my headphones in and my iPhone at full volume. It’s more intended for the fans elsewhere anyway, but it would be a nice addition to be able to stream the commentary while watching live.
Gigliani says that Manchester City don’t know how the behavior of fans – and thus the atmosphere at the match – might be changed by making video feeds available to mobile devices, but having observed consumer trends around the rise of ‘second screening’, they’re keen to find out.
My skepticism about the live in-stadium video may be misplaced, of course. Maybe fans will take to it over time, and even if they don’t, the roadmap for new features within City MatchDay means that the club will have plenty of opportunities to try new things and discover what sticks.
One idea in development, Gigliani says, would cut down on the time it takes for fans to buy refreshments at half time. I could have done with that during yesterday’s match – the chicken balti pies were all gone by the time I got to the front of the queue. Maybe one day the app will allow me to reserve one (and – top tip – the chicken balti pies at City games are delicious).
Reserving stadium refreshments in an app is not an original idea (it’s a service offered by Stadium Concierge and others), but having it bundled into a one-stop-shop app for fans’ every need would enrich the offer here.
On the technical front, City MatchDay fared well on its first outing, with O2’s stadium Wi-Fi proving up to the task of delivering relatively smooth video to my iPhone, even if some of the channels weren’t optimized for the 6 Plus’ 5.5-inch screen, resulting in more black space than would have been ideal. No doubt this will be fixed in the future, and Gigliani is confident that the multicast streaming technology that underpins the video delivery can perform well at stadium scale, as it has in other venues in the USA and Europe.
Unlike other Premier League clubs, City currently offer all their online video content for free. While the video streams in the City MatchDay app are advertised as being available without charge ‘for a limited time’, the club haven’t decided on a pricing model yet, and will look at how it is used before building a business model around it.
City MatchDay is a worthwhile experiment for Manchester City. As the club build out their international brand, having a one-stop, official app for fans to get involved in matchday wherever they are is a compelling proposition. Whether it leaves fans at the match glued to the phones rather than the pitch remains to be seen.