Manchester United are set to break yet another record, this time in the virtual world, via a partnership with Google+. The Red Devils will offer a select group of international fans the opportunity to participate in the first ever Google+ Hangout on the pitch-side boards at Old Trafford.
video courtesy manutd.com
This fan experience is the first of its kind in soccer, and is cutting edge technology that could prove to be a game changer with regard to what we call the “matchday experience”. The “Front Row” campaign will launch with United’s match against Liverpool at Old Trafford on March 16th according to the team’s website:
United fans will have the opportunity to cheer on the team, appearing via live Google+ Hangout – the free, multi-person video call feature – on Old Trafford’s pioneering pitchside digital hoardings. Throughout the match, Front Row supporters will be able to share in the magic of being at Old Trafford, joining 75,000 ticket holders and fellow Front Row participants the world over.
Traditionally, fans buy a match ticket for a physical seat within the stadium, go to the match, take their seat (or stand in front of it in many cases), and enjoy the match. Those that are not as lucky to be able to be there in person to support their club might be able to catch the match on television, depending on the league and their geographical location and network coverage and availability. Some might argue that the seat from their couch in their living room is better because it is free, and they get all the action just the same. Their opponents in this argument would say that there is no substitute for being there live in person and experiencing the atmosphere that only a live soccer match can create.
This new opportunity that United and Google+ are offering is an attempt to bridge that gap – to give those that cannot make it to the match live in person a virtual match experience that comes closer to achieving that same feeling than just watching it on TV. In an article on FC Business, Manchester United’s group director Richard Arnold was quoted saying,
Working with Google we are giving the chance for some of our 659 million followers around the globe to have a unique opportunity to be pitchside at one of the biggest games in world football.
Usually the pitch-side boards seen at matches all over the world are used for advertising purposes, and typically are spaces that local advertisers can get their name in the game with clubs, as they usually cannot afford to pay the price of a sponsorship that would get their brand name on some better real estate. An article from the guardian from back in 2009 stated that the club generated an estimated £18 Million ($29.96 Million*) from “secondary advertising”, and we can assume with the club’s growth in the last five years that this number is at probably at least around the same today.
The ‘Terms & Conditions’ of the “Front Row” campaign state that entry for fans is free of charge, which means that the club is footing the bill on this initiative, or perhaps Google, or perhaps a mix of both – details of funding were not disclosed. The point is that this campaign and technology certainly are not free to put on, and space that could otherwise be used to generate advertising dollars is being put to other uses that are not replacing that lost income (unless Google is paying United a fee to put on the program). It will be interesting to see if this is a long-term strategy for United and perhaps other clubs moving forward, or simply a one-time event.
If United, and other clubs, look to make this a regular part of their matchday offering, what will become of pitch-side board advertising? How will clubs replace this lost revenue? Will a spot in the Google+ Hangout eventually cost something to fans should it prove successful? Will clubs and Google work out a way to offer brands a way to advertise to the Google+Hangout members while they watch the match? All of these questions and more will need answering before we can truly validate the business impact of the “Front Row” campaign. This initiative does serve to prove that we have yet to even begin to see the potential that social media platforms can offer with how we think about the club/fan relationship.