West Ham United: Digitising the game to accelerate fan-engagement

West Ham United: Digitising the game to accelerate fan-engagement

Long rooted in English history, football is an emotive sport followed by loyal fans who travel far and wide to see their favourite team compete against rivals. However, in the last 10 years the traditional game has changed in the face of a vast demographic, where digitisation has disrupted the way in which we communicate and interact with others. Fans are able to now share experiences and speak to the players themselves through the emergence of social media. Technology continues to impact the sport and has consequently altered what fans expect to receive out of attending matches.

Having won the bid to relocate to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the iconic London Stadium, the Club looked to Mike Bohndiek to help them review their technological landscape. Initially appointed in a consultancy role and now Head of IT he looked at Upton Park (the club’s previous stadium) and its technological capabilities.

Understanding the demands the industry faces to cater to both fans and staff, Bohndiek undertook an essential gap analysis to ascertain what the club lacked from a technological perspective, and what it needed to ensure not only an exceptional venue which would cater for all ages, but would deliver an excellent fan experience each time.

“What quickly became apparent was that IT had been in a dark corner for quite some time,” he says. “The primary challenges surrounded the club’s decentralised, ageing infrastructure.”

Although Upton Park had been the home of West Ham since the late 1890s, Bohndiek explains: “When you've been in a physical location for so long, things work, not because they're best designed or most efficient, but because they've worked before. The attitude is that they worked yesterday so they'll work tomorrow, without a vision as to how it might be modernised and mobilised.”

Observing that many departments at the club were siloed, with servers out of warranty, machines which ran Windows XP and an outdated switch estate, Bohndiek adds that the club suffered from a number of network storms, which saw them come close to the cancellation of a Premier League match on one occasion. “It meant that the access control systems weren't functioning a couple of hours before kick-off,” he says.

Additionally, West Ham also had a widespread apprehension of adopting and procuring new technologies, something which Bohndiek had to address quickly.

Greater flexibility

By eliminating the use of classic virtual private networks (VPNs), the implementation of hybrid cloud solutions has seen West Ham overhaul its outdated processes and provide increase mobilisation and flexibility. Staff are able to work anytime, anywhere through the use of remote access and twin factor authentication, providing substantial organisational growth and ability for cross-collaboration.

“We broke into the Brand Finance's top 15 European clubs as a part of the move, and had European exposure and much more global exposure,” comments Bohndiek. “We want to be sending coaches out to countries such as Japan which they have recently visited. We want them to be signing promotional partnerships on the go.”

“I think it is an interesting marketplace with the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure, who are starting to see some fierce competition from startups, where people that are bringing genuine innovation to the market,” continues Bohndiek. “Approximately 70% of what we do is in the cloud.”

Additionally, the club’s collaboration with Sage saw it digitise its HR platform and create solutions within its manual paper processes, such as job applications and internal items such as the booking of annual leave. Staff will soon be able to access team and company-wide updates from smart devices and be more sustainable in the process.

With much to be done to transform the London Stadium experience, partnering would be a key success factor. Partnering with Ricoh ITS throughout the migration project, Bohndiek says: “There was great synergy with Ricoh and their growth in the ITS business, particularly in the UK and more widely in Europe. Similar to their strapline ‘Imagine, Change,’ we were looking at reimagining the future and bringing it to reality.”

The collaboration between the two parties saw the club reduce its number of active suppliers from 150 to just 32, whilst consolidating a large number of maintenance contracts, pricing and payment terms to drive further business savings. Consequently, the club has seen a reduction in supplier costs of approximately 25%.

“Our work included consolidating our multiple CCTV providers across the club’s estate to just one contract and one maintenance contract, saving up to 30%,” notes Bohndiek. “We have accumulated savings of over £200,000 in a number of areas, while making a fruitful partnership.”

Changing regulations

Furthermore, Bohndiek remains acutely aware that changes to existing data privacy laws come into force in April 2018, in light of the dangers facing fan and staff security in the midst of the rising number of cyberattacks and need for enforced security to ensure confidential data remains sealed.

Through a partnership with Foregenix, Bohndiek has been subsequently been behind the development of a new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) strategy at the club, and has closely examined the complexities surrounding the data in which it holds, particularly within the healthcare space.

“We are multi-faceted from a data perspective. Areas such as health and medical records, high net worth individuals are outliers and can be targeted for cybercrime at West Ham. With players and doctors working under our medical services, as well as contractual and financial information, which is another layer that we have, we then have our more classic business areas, such as CRM and data sources,” comments Bohndiek.

“Foregenix are checking how users access data, what the policies are, how our consents are looking at CRM level, et cetera. Foregenix's key strength is in PCI DSS compliance, where they have a number of experts in that field. In a field without a clear framework we feel it prudent to go to those who are experienced in data security frameworks in other fields and use their structured approach to identify the key steps.”

“For us to be compliant with the green guide and with our safety advisory board, people have to allow us to do certain things with their data but how do you promote that to them?” asks Bohndiek. “Who are the controllers? What are the joint arrangements between us and the London Stadium as an entity to ensure privacy is being maintained? Is it in the boundaries of what is required? It’s getting really interesting.

“We've had that within full protection of medical records, full protection of high net worth individuals, understanding of how we will function as a business because, as a football club clearly, playing football matches in front of capacity crowds is our core business. Supporting that with the core business is a very different beast from a GDPR perspective for football and for venues with a neutral audience.

“Whilst May is when the regulation comes into effect, we have an internal March deadline which will see us understand the framework, train the staff so the company can live and breathe data protection and GDPR by default.”

Commercial growth

With such renovation within its internal operations, West Ham’s fragmented technology estate has also been revamped to enable commercial growth and accommodate any peaks in demand. Its retail capabilities, from in store and warehousing to its online delivery abilities, have all been streamlined to cater for increased traffic surrounding match days and festive holidays such as Christmas.

“We previously had problems with shrinkage and stock control, and the balances to push these out to stores and remote sites,” explains Bohndiek. “We also had promotions set up on three systems depending on whether fans bought over the phone, online or in store – all of which didn’t talk to one other.” Integrating these systems has seen the club utilise a complete omnichannel solution for all its commercial operations.

Moving to a larger venue has also seen the club extend its service offering through increased technologies. It has increased its till numbers from 25 on a match day to over 50 available for peak match days. With roaming tills available in its executive lounges, it has also enabled fans to purchase merchandise in their box or lounge.

“Since the implementation, the system has processed over £8mn of payments across the estate. The third one recently opened in Basildon, so the retail solution is scalable,” comments Bohndiek.

“The industry is recognising that a scalable and suitable solution was found here that's really made a business impact. We try to do that as a concept across all of our business units. What is a commercial need in order to best sell sponsorships and get ourselves on the move, sharing and collaborating?” he adds.

“What does the media team need in terms of the amount of storage and live streaming from Facebook Live? What do the CRM guys need in terms of moving Dynamics and Office 365 and look towards hosting our customer view? We really went end-to-end within our transformation.”

A Look to the Future; increased fan-engagement

Nonetheless, the biggest impact of all these changes will be most clearly seen within the fan experience. From extending the match day, assisting fans on route or promoting transportation routes, the infrastructure layers which can support data analytics is being explored to allow the club to look at ways to further shape the fan experience into something exceptional.

So, what further challenges does West Ham have to tackle?

With its vast demographic, catering for all ages, Bohndiek explains that there will be different levels of knowledge not only from a technological perspective, but also the history surrounding the club itself.

“Some older fans will know who Bobby Moore was, what he achieved and the legendary status he has. A 10-year-old will perhaps not have that context,” he says. “What better way than to use something like augmented reality, and have a young fan view the history and culture of the club through a medium in which they are used to. They will then start sharing this experience and happiness with the game on social media.

“Fans have got this connected world in which they can tap into. They want to be talking to people. They want their friends and family involved and understanding what they're doing or be showing off that they're at a particular match,” Bohndiek continues. “They want to be sharing photos, sharing videos, sharing clips and emotions and feelings they were having at that time.

“So, there's now two products when you come to football. There's the on-the-field experience and watching the match. But there's actually a wrap-around experience that transcends the operational. How do you get to the grounds? How are the bag searches? Could you find your seat ok? And then there’s the engagement side: Did you have fun, did you use the app, did you win a prize, did you compete with these people, did you meet a player afterwards, and that wrap-around.”

However, despite its challenges, West Ham’s IT migration project completed on time and within budget, an impressive feat for any project of such magnitude. Impacting all areas of the business, West Ham remains committed to developing new and existing technologies to cater towards its fans.

It’s partnership with Ricoh will also see the transformation of its merchandising for the future. With ambitions to make all of its services multilingual, West Ham is continuing to work with Ricoh, which is working towards developing the industrial process of printing commercial products, such as its t-shirts and wallpaper, and tailor these products to its fans.

“By taking any photo of any fan at a game, we want to have the ability to get his or her image printed on these products, which can be paid for on the day or delivered to a fan’s home as an additional bonus, and create a treasured memory for our fans,” explains Bohndiek.

“Paperless is becoming more common as it revolves in new verticals and new markets. We'll continue working with Ricoh to push those sorts of elements. Equally, they're also looking at the Internet of Things world more around virtual presence devices, which we would like to be involved with in the future.”

With such breadth of sporting knowledge and talent, Bohndiek notes that he is soon to leave West Ham Football Club, as its IT migration is now complete. With over 10 years’ experience in supporting sporting facilities in digitising and integrating their services, he now aims to break out into sports consultancy with Pragmatic Technology Insights (PTI) Consulting

“I'm looking to take this knowledge and experience and work with a variety of businesses to help them mature more quickly, as the risk, as I see it, to many stadia or many clubs partially is getting left behind and losing that next generation.

“As well as football, I’ve been in the realm of professional cricket, as a coach and a mentor. I’ve worked with people in that element from first team, right the way down to looking at performance analytics,” he adds.

“I'm now able to engage with the all aspects of the business – from the boardroom, to the business units to the 1st XI and their analytics - and make recommendations around the tools and software that are out there to help them digitise their services.

“This is on top of the infrastructure for a stadium, as well as desk-side experience and what CRM systems could look like in the future. The holistic experience gained is what I’m aiming to share.”

Mike Bohndiek