Seventeen minutes into last weekend’s derby match between north London neighbours Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, the crowd at Arsenal’s futuristic Emirates stadium erupts. Emmanuel Adebayor, once of Arsenal but now playing for the club’s local rivals, has stretched recklessly into a tackle and crashed his studs into the Gunners’ latest midfield idol, Santi Cazorla. Red card, says the referee.
Not for the first time, 60,000 people inside the ground make their feelings known to their former hero. “You’re a disgrace, Adebayor. He’s a disgrace,” says my neighbour, in one of the more printable outbursts I hear. Then, like many others around us in the crowd, he reaches for his smartphone to pass his judgement online.
In fact, bad blood has been a fixture between the two sides since 1913, when Arsenal relocated from south of the river to Highbury, three miles from Spurs’s ground on White Hart Lane, and reinvented themselves as a north London football institution. But what is new is that within seconds of the sending off, as fans inside the ground continue to offer their different points of view, virtual debates are also raging.
On Arseblog.com, a site that receives around 750,000 hits each week, “Sol Goodman” writes: “Thanks to Adebayor for being Adebayor, he really can’t help being an idiot!” “Love [Arsenal midfielder] Jack Wilshere’s unabashed disgust at the site [sic] of any Spurs player,” replies “Paobing”. The atmosphere inside the stadium is tumultuous but there is no doubt that it is being fuelled via Twitter, tablet and text message by people watching the game many miles away from north London.
In Fever Pitch, his 1992 book about football fandom, the writer Nick Hornby described his first visit to Highbury, the stadium Arsenal played at until 2006. “I remember the overwhelming maleness of it all – cigar smoke and pipe smoke, foul language,” he wrote, but also how the stadium felt like home, a place for the local community to come together. Does he feel the same way at the Emirates now? Arsenal’s 5-2 victory over Tottenham last Saturday demonstrated how the new tools of social media have transformed the way we watch football. As Hornby admitted on a recent BBC radio programme to mark the 20th anniversary of his book, “It is a different experience altogether.”
An hour before kick-off, the narrow streets outside Arsenal Tube station are already flooded with fans in red-and-white shirts. Every few metres, there are stalls selling all things Arsenal, the smell of frying burgers wafting out over scarves, pin badges and woolly hats. A bulky man in a leather jacket is selling The Gooner, a fanzine launched in 1987 as an alternative to the official matchday programme. But he goes largely unnoticed by the fans on their way to the ground who tweet as they walk, dissecting team news with fellow supporters. James Meade, 40, scrolls through his Twitter feed. “Arsenal are trending in South Africa,” he tells me. A few metres away, a stylish man in jeans and a suit jacket scrolls through the matchday programme on his iPad.
This scene could have come straight from the pages of Super Sad True Love Story (2010), Gary Shteyngart’s darkly comic portrait of a futuristic America in which the information age has created a new Babel. Characters don’t really like talking. Instead, preferring to live-stream their thoughts and conversations on a smartphone-like device called an “apparat”.
Inside the Emirates, the fans go into interactive overdrive as the match kicks off. Initially, it’s not the emotions of the thousands of spectators present that appear the most powerfully felt but those of the millions of people watching TV broadcasts around the world, streaming the games online and commenting on social networking sites such as Twitter. They include US-based Arsenal fan and television host Piers Morgan, his Twitter sparring partner and Tottenham fan Sir Alan Sugar, golfer Ian Poulter, and what seems like a large number of Arsenal’s 1.9m Twitter followers – the most of any team in England (Chelsea are second, with 1.6m). From Spain, Cesc Fàbregas (@cesc4official), a former Arsenal midfielder now playing for Barcelona, posts his own good luck message before Arsenal go 1-0 down: “Come on @Arsenal!!!!” It is re-tweeted more than 10,000 times during the game.
One day about six weeks ago, I visited Arsenal’s offices at Highbury House, a couple of streets away from the club’s former stadium, which has been converted into luxury apartments. A flat-screen TV on the wall is set to Sky Sports but otherwise it is a dull office lobby like any other. In a small room I find Charles Allen, the club’s marketing manager and head of social media. A tall man in his forties, with slicked-back hair, he is the co-ordinator of a groundbreaking club project: to get “100m people inside the Emirates on matchdays”.
Not literally, of course. But Allen’s aim is to replicate the matchday experience for as many fans around the world as possible. It is a new vision of fandom. Arsenal sees China’s 1bn-plus population as the world’s biggest untapped football market. To attract Chinese followers, Arsenal display posts from Chinese social networking sites on its electronic advertising boards during games. They did this when they played Manchester United at the Emirates last season, which coincided with Chinese new year. The policy seems to work: in the past five months, Arsenal have attracted 920,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
“I’m trying to turn Arsenal’s attention away from solely concentrating on the gameday experience for local fans,” says Allen. “We want to satisfy our fans [watching abroad] with as many touch points to the live experience as possible.” That could be through the club’s Twitter feeds or their digital matchday programme, which launched at the beginning of this season and is available for £3 as an iPad app, the same price as the print programme. It has already been downloaded 40,000 times (an average of almost 5,000 per match; compared with sales of 12,500 per match for the print programme). “We’re beginning to refocus our whole membership strategy away from the UK market,” he adds.
Arsenal are not the only big English football club trying to unlock the commercial value from social data. But improved technology at football stadiums is not only about making money. Russell Stopford, 41, head of digital at Premier League champions Manchester City, tells me that, in recent years, television coverage of the Premier League has become so rich and detailed that clubs feel compelled to match the on-screen experience. “Fans have got used to some of the excellent television coverage out there. Over the next couple of years, football clubs have to work hard to try and replicate the on-screen experience at the stadium,” he says. “It is not just about selling shirts.”
Manchester City already displays live Twitter feeds on screens inside and outside the stadium. And with 2.5m Weibo followers, they are doing a good job of tapping into the Chinese football market. “Today, we’ve gained 17,000 new Weibo followers in the past six hours,” Stopford says proudly.
But the capacity of fixed mobile networks at stadiums to deal with the digital needs of spectators is a pressing problem. Anyone trying to get online while watching a live football match at a stadium in England will be only too aware of this, as network coverage is often stretched to breaking point when key moments or incidents occur. In Europe, clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona have already optimised their stadiums with suitable Wi-Fi connections, social media apps and interactive experiences for their fans during games. But they are not even close to the latest generation of stadiums in the US. Cowboys Stadium, home to the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys, is one of the largest sports venues in the world, with a capacity of 110,000. At $1.15bn, it is also one of the most expensive stadiums ever built. Inside, four giant screens are suspended over the pitch, including one that is 49m by 8m (larger than a basketball court, and the biggest high-definition screen in the world, according to Guinness World Records). During breaks in play, they broadcast real-time statistics and conversations between the microphone-wearing players.
And that is not all. A dozen teams in the NFL have given their fans the option of using Fan Vision, a handheld device that only works in stadiums and offers several live feeds from several different angles during games, as well as real-time statistics. “It’s become an arms race,” Peter Brickman, the chief technology officer at MetLife Stadium, home to both the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets, told The New York Times.
When will English clubs catch up? “London 2012 was the first ‘social media Olympics’. It was the first time spectators in this country had a proper multichannel experience in a stadium,” says Manchester City’s Stopford, referring to the 30 mobile phone masts that were fitted across the 500-acre Olympic Park, creating the UK’s largest single wi-fi installation. “This kind of technology is coming to football soon.”
I was taken to my first football game by my father in September 1995. The game was played in front of 38,000 at Highbury, Arsenal’s art deco stadium before they moved a few roads away to the Emirates. We watched the Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp score his first two goals for Arsenal in a 4-2 win over Southampton. Though we knew no different at the time, there was an enviable simplicity about watching football in the pre-Twitter, pre-smartphone age. No impulse of superfluous urgency in the face of intense experience, or any experience. No inner murmur of, “Should I be tweeting this? Should I blog it, post it, tag it, like it, film it and upload it?”
Bernard Azulay, 51, was also there that day. A devoted fan who lives down the road from Highbury, he has been to almost every home game since 1969. For the past 20 years, he has taken a pair of binoculars and a transistor radio to matches – his only concession to technology – to heighten the live-viewing experience. “I’m a bit of an anorak,” he admits.
“I’ve been in the stadium when my friend next to me has been Skyping his brother-in-law in New York, to show him the stadium and the matchday atmosphere,” he says. But it’s not something he likes. “Going to the stadium used to be a form of escapism for the fans,” he adds. “There was very little interference from the outside world. It was just you and the players.”
For Kevin Whitcher, editor of The Gooner, the “interactive experience” on matchday is a mixed blessing. More people now read the fanzine online than buy it on matchdays. Sales of the print edition, produced by fans every couple of months and therefore lacking the immediacy of the internet, are down to 5,000 per issue, a 20 per cent decline since moving to the Emirates in 2006. This despite the fact the stadium holds 22,000 more spectators than Highbury did.
“Exchanging views with other supporters at matches can enhance your enjoyment,” admits Whitcher, 48. Yet while it is natural for entertainment venues to keep up with technology, he insists that “football has to keep its soul”.
Azulay, a keen historian of the club, wonders about the attachments that are being formed by the club’s new-found, far-flung Twitterati. For example, he muses, how many of them would be aware that Arsenal were formed in 1886 as a social outlet for workers at a south London munitions factory? Or that David Danskin, a Scotsman, organised a whip-round among his colleagues to buy the team’s first football? “I’m not sure very many would know the story behind how a team of factory workers grew into a north London powerhouse led by Arsène Wenger, Britain’s most famous Frenchman,” he says.
It’s likely that Azulay knows rather more about the club than most of his fellow Arsenal fans, be they on Twitter or otherwise. But it’s clear that modern clubs, in targeting global consumers, risk the deeper connection formed by those who faithfully attend games and buy season tickets – in Arsenal’s case the most expensive in the Premier League.
The move to the club’s futuristic Emirates stadium has coincided with an information age in which we’re all up to date and up to our eyeballs in football. This seems more true of Arsenal supporters than most: Wikio Blog Ranking lists five Arsenal-specific sites amid their top 20 football blogs (Arseblog sits fourth). Chelsea, Manchester United, Sunderland and Tottenham hold one spot each; the rest are made up of general interest football blogs, which are of course open to a much wider audience.
Andrew Mangan, the editor of Arseblog.com, perhaps best typifies the modern Arsenal fan. Mangan is Irish and started the website in 2002 while living in Barcelona. He has posted articles every day since. “I do a good eight-hour work day on Arsenal, seven days a week,” he says. Now living back in Dublin, he also tweets (from @arseblog) and blogs live during games but doesn’t go to the stadium often, perhaps only three or four times year. “It’s become very expensive,” he says.
From Dublin, Mangan leads the online debate. On average, Arseblog.com receives 3m page-views a week, he tells me. Its success has seen Mangan earn a decent living from supporting Arsenal – the website carries advertisements and last year he published So Paddy Got Up: An Arsenal Anthology (Portnoy). Despite this online activity, he is adamant that “the action on the pitch must remain at the centre of fans’ attention. The players are magnificent.”