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Is Our Obsession With Technology Damaging the Match-Going Experience?

The nature of football support, and in particular the match-going experience, has changed profoundly with the ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets. Are we still fully engaged with what's taking place on the pitch?
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

It was 4.50pm on Saturday 6 February 2016. For narrative purposes I should probably elaborate on what the weather was like, but I don't remember. Let's say it was cold and grey; winter usually is. I was watching what, in hindsight, represented the beginning of the end for Birmingham City's play-off ambitions – and perhaps my slender faith in modern football.


The Blues had taken the lead at home to Sheffield Wednesday, but were now trailing 2-1. As they desperately searched for a late equaliser, I was distracted by some dickhead a couple of rows in front, who had decided to get his iPad out and start watching the Six Nations instead. I'm a placid man, but even I have my limits.

This guy was physically present at an actual game – finely balanced and with just a few minutes to play – but decided he'd rather watch something else on a small screen. It was utterly bizarre. To forgo a live experience, which you've presumably paid for, in favour of a flat, emotionless representation of 30 oversized lads knocking lumps out of each other, simply made no sense.

The Blues' game had been delayed for 10 minutes in the first half due to an injury to the opposition's goalkeeper. Mr iPad (not his actual name, at least as far I'm aware) probably assumed that it would be finished by now, giving him time to rush to a nearby pub to watch Scotland and England compete for an arbitrary colonial shield. But that's no excuse.

In a show of admirable restraint, I managed to avoid clobbering him over the head and screaming directly into his stupid face about what an awful person he was, and how he had fundamentally misunderstood sport and didn't deserve to be there. I regret my decision to this day. Still, if nothing else, he at least provided the most egregious example of something that had been bothering me for a while: the manner in which technology is affecting live sport.


In fairness, this grim-faced Hull fan probably wasn't missing much // PA Images

The nature of football support, and in particular the match-going experience, has changed profoundly with the ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets. No longer do people simply watch the game, talk to their mates, and abuse the opposition, officials or their own team as proceedings dictate. Most now spend an inordinate amount of time staring at tiny screens.

I can't comprehend what motivates people to attend a live event – particularly one as expensive yet hopefully absorbing and immersive as a football match – and spend the majority of their time doing everything other than watch what's happening on the pitch. Tweeting, texting, taking pictures, checking other scores, placing bets – all seem to take priority for a surprising number of supporters.

The same thing happens in pubs when people are out with their mates to watch a match. An ostensibly social occasion, many end up thumbing away on their phones in silence. I recognise the same tendency in myself sometimes, but it's one I'm keen to resist.

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Perhaps there's something stultifying about having all this information so readily accessible. Far from broadening our horizons, it narrows them to a limited and repetitive range. The occasional lull is filled with yet another scan of texts, emails, Facebook and Twitter.

It simply wouldn't have happened before. Even 10 years ago it felt like football existed in a vacuum. If you were at a game you wouldn't know the other scores until they were announced at half-time, unless it was the final day of the season and your team's fate hinged on events elsewhere. Now there are Fantasy Football points to calculate and implausible accumulators to monitor. It's difficult to enjoy a single match in isolation any more.


Match-going has become a far more passive and mediated experience as a result. Once the preserve of day-trippers and football tourists, many people now take pictures and videos of the occasion. It's not enough to just be present: there has to be proof that you were there. This desire for validation and a record of attendance has always existed in some form or another – as ticket stub and programme collectors will attest – but it seems more pervasive, and problematic, than before.

PA Images

Consider how many vital goals have been missed because fans were too busy immortalising their experiences on social media, or sending some weak 'banter' to a WhatsApp group. Some kind of phone amnesty would allow us to enjoy the simple pleasures and pains of sport. At an NBA game in 2015, a woman discovered the cost of these distractions, to her dignity if nothing else, when a fumbled pass hit her straight in the face. It would be harsh to suggest that she got what she deserved, but also pretty accurate.

While many fans keep turning up to see their team out of unquestioning loyalty or a warped sense of obligation, for others the match is another means to demonstrate a busy social life. We're all guilty of this to some degree, needily seeking out the acknowledgement and affirmation of others. It's the same impulse that, unchecked, spawns an album's worth of Facebook pictures from a single night out. "We were there. We had fun," it calls out into the void, like endless unopened Snapchats of away day, 'lads on tour' antics.


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The idea that we are now more socially connected than ever before, yet in superficial ways that are actually rather alienating, is well established. More than just sport, live entertainment of all kinds has altered because of it. Gigs are dominated by people holding mobile phones aloft, watching at one remove, compromising their enjoyment of the actual moment for the sake of a poorly-filmed record of what they should have been focusing on. It's a disturbing tendency that's taking hold in football, too.

There has been a miniature backlash against the effect this screen-obsession is having. The Manchester City supporters watching Sergio Aguero's scuffed penalty against Paris Saint-Germain via their camera phones earned some short-lived social media infamy, while Gary Neville recently claimed an image of Liverpool fans welcoming Jose Mourinho to Anfield was 'scary for all football'. It's something his employers, who have done more than most to promote a passive and consumerist sporting culture, may wish to ponder.

A few years ago, PSV Eindhoven supporters memorably protested against the introduction of Wi-Fi at the Philips Stadion. The banner they displayed – "Fuck Wi-Fi, support the team" – encapsulated the sense that it would detract from the atmosphere at games.

A Chelsea fan snaps the game with his Chelsea-branded phone and we're done here, aren't we? // PA Images

The nature of the dressing room, regarded as football's inner sanctum, is believed to be changing too. Several managers have recently cited an addiction to technology as a factor affecting team morale, making connections between players more remote and less meaningful. It's not just an insular and old-fashioned English viewpoint either: progressive cosmopolitan figures like Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman feel similarly.

In the grand scheme of things, these are token efforts at holding back the tide. Elsewhere, especially in the stands, the trend continues unchallenged. Back in March, to little notice, the Football League announced that its member clubs would offer free Wi-Fi for a range of official apps, including news, commentary, highlights and betting. The service was said to "deliver the complete digital match day experience to supporters".

As fond as I am of horrific marketing speak, I'll pass on that. The analogue version has served me fine so far.