If you're a fan of American football (or any other big-time American sport, for that matter), you could be excused for believing that technology is rapidly becoming the determining factor in the sporting experience when attending a game. But if you're a fan of international football, by far the world's most popular game, it turns out that technology can play a less central role without necessarily impacting the quality of the game experience.
A study in contrasts
Just last year, for example, I wrote a glowing report here in Tech Watch covering the high-tech accouterments of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, the gleaming new home of the San Francisco 49ers. And as the NFL season geared up, the New York Times and others wrote stories about the league's high-tech arms race, which rivaled the battles on the field in intensity and may have exceeded it in terms of the dollars at stake.
So I was expecting big technological innovations when I recently visited Camp Nou, the storied home of FC Barcelona, arguably the most successful and one of the most popular sporting franchises in the world right now. (Barca won the coveted continental treble last year, capturing the La Liga, Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League—the first team to do so twice! Wikipedia says it has the largest social media following of any sports team in the world). But the stadium experience wasn’t tech-y at all.
No tech keeps focus on the field
Forget innovative mobile apps keeping you up to the minute on the action on the pitch. Heck, there wasn't even Wi-Fi, much less state-of-the-art coverage. But that was only the beginning of the differences.
While the PA announcers introduced the starting lineups and substitutions, that was pretty much it for commentary during the match. No pre-recorded music, either; the only sounds were the cheering of the fans and the drums and horns of the supporters gathered with giant flags behind one of the goals.
Given the bright and clear video scoreboards behind each goal, I expected some interesting tech in that area, at least, but no dice. There were no replays, instant or otherwise, for exciting plays or controversial fouls. Even goals didn't merit instant replays, just a laconic listing of who scored them and when.
On the plus side, there was also a notable lack of advertising on screen during the game. There were electronic ads around the edge of the pitch, and some additional ads. Of course, the players' jerseys did carry ads, and on games days those ad-plastered jerseys seem to be on every teenager in Barcelona – and plenty of adults, too. Reportedly, the NBA is considering adopting this unfortunate "innovation," along with all the other commercial noise surrounding pro basketball games.
Lack of beer and decent food, too
Oddly enough, perhaps, after I got over my initial shock, I didn't really miss the bells and whistles that I happily partake in at U.S. sporting events. And neither did the tens of thousands of other futbol fans in attendance, hailing from all over the world if the languages and accents I heard were any indication.
In fact, the only thing I truly missed was the beer – only non-alcoholic swill was served in the stadium, along with a paltry selection of less-than-appetizing-looking food (the branded Barca chips looked good, though.)
Barca won 4-1 over Levante, with the incredible Messi scoring a pair of goals, and that seemed to be more than enough to keep just about everyone happy. Admittedly, this was my first and only big-time international soccer match, and I've heard stories that some soccer stadiums – notably Wembley and Twickenham stadiums in the UK – are tech-intensive, I found the entire experience refreshing and helped me focus on the action on the pitch, especially Messi's masterful second goal as regulation time expired.
Would this tech-free and frill-free recipe work as well for a struggling team in a less-popular sport? Perhaps not. But a delightful evening at Camp Nou shows that while technology can be a great addition to a sporting event, and no doubt boosts revenue for many teams, it's not always necessary to create a world-class team and provide a world-class experience.