In the world of football, transfer prices and sponsorship deals make headlines. The lean startup methodology, a model for startup companies entering the market, isn't common currency. Analytics may be increasingly used to up the teams' performance, but big data is equally far from a big name in the sport. However, FC Barcelona has signed them both to improve the experience of almost 100,000 spectators at its stadium, the Camp Nou, on match day.
The club, which landed its second treble - the Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League titles - last season, is using a three-pronged attack including infrastructure, services, and user interface to improve its digital strategy and turn its facilities into smart spaces: a project known as Smart Espai Barça.
The club and Barcelona's local government signed a partnership deal in late May aimed at bringing the city's tech learnings to FC Barcelona, allowing it to turn Camp Nou into a mini smart city. The deal builds on an earlier agreement between FC Barcelona and Mobile World Congress, the mobile industry's biggest event, which has already brought a number of business opportunities to local startups and helped promote the city internationally, according to the club.
As its slogan says, FC Barcelona is "more than a club": it accounts for 1.2 percent (€759m) of Barcelona's GDP.
Didac Lee, a member of the FC Barcelona board and the club's head of new technologies, told ZDNet he refreshed the club's IT estate after the club's presidential elections last month.
Now, the Camp Nou and other club facilities are in the process of being transformed into smart areas, fitted with technologies such as contactless ticketing, camera security and surveillance, electric vehicle-friendly policies and an EV-charging infrastructure, new mobile apps with better services, and beacons showing personalized messages and touchscreens. All the improvements are aimed at promoting efficiency and sustainability at the club.
La Masia, smart lab
Since November last year, most of the technologies have been piloted at the new Miniestadi - the FC Barcelona B and FC Barcelona C stadium, which has a capacity of over 15,000 - and at la Masia-Oriol Tort Training Center, about 15km from Barcelona.
The facility has been turned into a 'smart lab' designed to make FC Barcleona players' lives easier with apps like FCBme, which collates all the practical information they need when they arrive at the club and the city.
The ultimate goal is for the Smart Espai Barça to be developed into a new tech hub in the city, and make visits to the premises, either to watch matches or visit the stadium, a unique experience.
The project isn't just about fitting about 100,000 people in a stadium for a set time, Lee says: "We want Smart Espai Barça to be a reference for all smart stadiums across the world."
More than Facebook and Twitter
One of the Espai Barça project's first steps will be rolling out wi-fi across different locations, paid for by sponsorship. It's an improvement supporters have been calling for. David Egea, an IT consultant and member of the club since he was nine years old, says, "Wi-fi has always been a problem, even when the stadium isn't crowded. Fortunately, last season, 3G connectivity worked better."
The club plans to have 1,079 wi-fi access points by spring 2016, delivered in a phased rollout. Currently, wi-fi is already available in the Camp Nou Boulevard, the Barcelona supporter services office, the Plaça de la Font de Canaletes (where fans celebrate victories), and the South Goal forecourt.
In autumn 2015, wi-fi should be extended to the Camp Nou Experience (which covers the stadium tour and club museum) and the ice skating rink, located near the stadium. In winter 2015 wi-fi should also be available in the Palau, the club's sports hall, used by basketball, handball, and roller hockey teams.
Eventually, in spring 2016, wi-fi is slated to be available inside the Camp Nou and nearby areas. "It will have to enable up to 100,000 people to connect while in the stadium, so I'm curious to see how they address the challenge," says Egea.
The aim of the deployment is not just to let spectators upload pictures to Facebook or Twitter during the match, FC Barcelona's tech head Lee says. "For us, wi-fi is like electricity. It's basic and necessary to develop other useful services for members and supporters, such as a system to avoid queues, ordering food, personalizing commercial offers, or voting online for the greatest goal scored, and, of course, publish content on social networks."
"We are very active in social networks. We are the top football club in followers [over 176 million]. We have an official website in nine different languages that generates more than 170 million visits a season and no fewer than 12 million downloads of the apps, but now we want to go further on," he adds.
That's why six months ago the club held a co-creation workshop with its members to develop useful apps, where it applied the lean startup methodology. The result is the Members App (App del soci in Catalan), set to be released in September 2015, which will be a fundamental tool for interacting with the club. Its features include a digital season ticket (allowing ticket holders to enter the stadium with their mobile phone) and a chat app for direct communication with the Barcelona supporters services office.
According to Lee, FC Barcelona's smart strategy is much more than a smart stadium and a few apps, however. The strategy is being driven by three concepts: usefulness, efficiency, and sustainability, through the participation of digital-native members. "The implementation of smart technologies at our facilities will allow us to improve the experience for '2.0 members' and make our premises an important part of Barcelona, a smart and innovative city".
Of course, these digital developments will also generate extra income thanks to the sale of more personalized products. Lee said that direct revenues generated by new technologies are five times higher than five years ago and now reach €30m.
But, as in any other business, error is part of the process. Sometimes failing is a great opportunity for innovation, the club's tech chief says. For example, Barça developed a car-sharing app that failed; the club went back to the members to ask for their feedback, and subsequently launched 'Seient lliure', an app to release a seat at the stadium when it's not in use. "That is a great success," says Lee, who plans to develop a similar app for parking spaces.
Ricard Faura, a member of the club for more than 40 years and a techno-anthropologist and head of knowledge society at the Catalan government, knows "very few people who use the 'Seient Lliure' app," but thinks the problem stems not from the app's design but from "digital competencies of members and citizens".
"It would be useful to provide training and support for members and supporters' associations, so they realize the potential of ICT tools to interact with the club," he says. "What is underway is good enough and with a little training strategy for citizens on how to use the tools available, the impact, certainly, would be spectacular."
Looking to the future, FC Barcelona's Lee acknowledges that probably the most interesting services being used in five years have not even been imagined today. What he does know, however, is that he wants the club to be a leader in using big data to predict the wants and needs of fans and to develop new services to generate more profits. "It will be the most important development we will carry on in the next thee years," he says.