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How technology is upending the sports fan experience

BY Taymour Khashoggi

23rd Nov 2023 Sport

5 min read

How technology is upending the sports fan experience
From VAR in football and the rise of statistics to line-call technology in multiple sports, here's how technology is changing the sports fan experience—for better or worse
As their new £105m signing slickly controlled a 96th minute corner and smashed the ball passed a luckless André Onana, a nervous Emirates Stadium erupted. Arsenal’s new fan-favourite Declan Rice had all but guaranteed the win in a rollercoaster game against a historic rival, Manchester United.
The teams were only a few weeks into their new seasons, and amidst the joy and pandemonium was an all too familiar feeling creeping into the stands—doubt.
The referees were replaying the action, ensuring the goal, and any incidents in the build up to it, were legal.

Damaging the spirit of the game

Footballers wait for the VAR decision to be made by the referee in the background checking screens
Adam Willmott has campaigned against the existence of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) since its introduction in 2019: "I can't lose myself in the moment. When there's a goal now, I sit there as a fan and I think: 'Well, let's see. Let's see if it's given.'"
That day in September, the referee confirmed the Arsenal goal was indeed legal and 60,000 partisans celebrated for a second time. They would go on to win 3-1 but for some, the "moment" was already lost.
"Technically VAR worked and got the decision right, but it kills the moment. I think a lot of people mistakenly think that I'm against VAR being bad, but even if it was perfect, it kills football."
"Technically VAR worked and got the decision right, but it kills the moment"
Adam's campaign, Fans Against VAR, has attracted 30,000 signatures to a petition arguing that technology dilutes "the spirit of the game", regardless of any improvement in the accuracy of decision making.
"If you think about football as a sport, it's very instantaneous. I think that's why people love football. The whole world loves football, and it's because of that moment of a goal. You have it in other sports but it's not quite the same. Some sports are very high scoring, like cricket, rugby... maybe American sports. In football, one goal is everything. And that moment melts people."

A shifting discourse around games, with fans feeling left behind

Lower league team celebrating with the fans
At the Emirates that afternoon, refereeing incidents would go on to almost entirely dominate the post-match analysis of a game that was both tactically rich and thrilling on its surface.
"The drama of VAR is good. We can talk about it in the media cycle, but don't take the match-going fans into consideration. Match-going fans are rarely talked about anymore in the Premier League."
The Premier League has received mounting criticism from fans for rising ticket prices and the scheduling of games which makes it more difficult for fans to follow their clubs. Adam sees the introduction of VAR as merely another symptom of football's transformation from community asset to profit-obsessed business. 
"Decisions are always made in favour of money and the 'product' that they try to protect in favour of TV deals. The absolute last thing they ever think of is the supporter experience. No one was ever asked, no Premier League season ticket holder was ever asked, ‘do you want that?’".
In the lower leagues, some football fans are clutching on to what they see as a purer experience. Players are more accessible, in-depth data is scarce and the spectacle takes the front seat. Mason Hutchinson is matchday reporter at Tilbury FC, in the ninth level of the English football pyramid. He also supports and writes about Arsenal.   
"I love non-league football. The players are much more interactive with the fans, joining them for a drink after the match, which creates a real sense of community."

Data changes the game

While most discussion of technology in football tends to focus on the outcome of refereeing decisions, the experience for fans has been altered far beyond what happens at the blow of a whistle. Ready at the disposal of any fan willing to argue a point, especially online, will be a store of underlying data. From expected goals (or xG) to average position maps and field tilt percentage, the stats toolkit has never been more comprehensive. The prevalence of these metrics has undoubtedly enriched the analysis of games and provided new avenues through which fans can dissect tactical nuances. It does however change the focus, and the lens through which experience the sport. 
"At the lower leagues, I'm 100 per cent more able to simply enjoy the game at face value"
"At the lower leagues, I'm 100 per cent more able to enjoy the game at face value", Mason told me.
"Technology in non-league is definitely starting to grow, with most games being filmed and most teams having scouts and analysts, but there are a lot fewer stats in the game, other than maybe clean sheets and goals. I think it’s a lot more enjoyable being able to watch the players express themselves."

Technology drives a quest for perfection

Football fans in the crowd watching a match
For Adam, the obsession with data exemplifies a sporting culture that is increasingly obsessed with results, to the detriment of the spectacle.
"It's genuinely sad for football because, some of my favourite players, and there's less of them because of the obsession with stats, are the maverick players. Players who are just incredibly skilful entertainers. Maybe their xG and their goals and assists weren't there, but as a fan, they get you off your seat."
The question posed by the prevalence of technology in sport is whether the focus on numbers and accuracy comes at the expense of what generates interest in the first place: vibes. 
"When you go to a game, you never think about statistics. When I go to a game, I look forward to seeing my friends. I look forward to having a drink afterwards, maybe before. I look forward to the art of football. The more statistics driven football has become, the more robotic football has become, and the less of a good experience it's become. We don't really view football as an experience anymore." 

Can the use of technology also elevate the experience?

Women's volleyball from the 2012 Olympic Games
Proponents of technology often point to the successful adoption of technology in other sports. Electronic line calls are quickly becoming the norm across tennis and volleyball, and football itself uses a popular goal-line technology. Jason Haldane, a former volleyball player who competed for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympic Games and now coaches, says that the adoption of technology has enhanced the game.
"As a fan, it has made watching matches even more enjoyable. Not having to worry about disputed line calls, I can concentrate on the incredible rallies, the skill of the players, and the sheer excitement of the game. It's as though technology has lifted a burden off our backs, enabling us to fully appreciate volleyball's beauty."
"Line-calls are objective decisions, not ones subject to interpretation, so can shine a stronger light on the actual game"
Line-calls are objective decisions, not ones subject to interpretation. They can therefore shine a stronger light on the actual game rather than detract from it, according to Haldane.
For many fans in football stadiums, the concept of a clear-cut decision has always been foreign. Adam Willmott insists that "we're judging subjective situations with objective criteria."
Fandom can take many forms. It can be elevated by data-informed analysis or diluted by a fixation on metrics. Some prioritise accuracy, while others consider it to come at the expense of the “moments”. In an October YouGov survey, 54 per cent of Premier League fans said that VAR has made matches less enjoyable.
For Adam and his campaign, simply reforming the technology is a futile exercise.  "Life is not perfect and neither is football. We're trying to turn an art into a science."
Banner photo credit: VAR at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium (Taymour Khashoggi)

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