As football continues to grow in popularity across the world, the ability to connect with fans has become increasingly important for all clubs and none more so than Manchester United, with a fanbase that is famously both large and geographically disparate.

The Manchester club claims to have 659 million ‘followers’ worldwide - with many of these in regions such as Asia-Pacific. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have proved a key way of reaching out to these supporters.

But Manchester United believes that by further developing and modernising its digital proposition - such as its website and mobile apps - it can get closer to its fans, benefitting both the supporters and the club itself.

To achieve this, it has partnered with Indian outsourcing firm HCL to set up a digital innovation lab inside its Old Trafford stadium, aimed at developing a range of new technologies to help engage directly with millions of fans in the UK and worldwide.

“Through this collaboration we hope to change the way we interact with our fans around the world, to improve the overall fan experience of those who connect with us, whether they visit Old Trafford, the website, or through our social media channel,” said Manchester United’s group managing director, Richard Arnold, at a press event held at Old Trafford yesterday.

“We will work together to build digital platforms which enhance the way in which fans experience the club and further boost our digital presence.”

Social media and mobile devices have already changed the way that fans interact with all clubs, and how they view the game.

Manchester United ambassador and former right back, Dennis Irwin, said this has improved the fan experience at the club.

“The vast majority of our fans can’t get to Old Trafford. We have to engage them also and that is where we have to use social media,” he said. “Games are on TV right across the world now, so in that respect fans get to see a lot more, engage a lot more, and the change has been unbelievable.

“Technology is a huge part of the game now - both for the players and the media and particularly for the fans.

The United Xperience Lab is similar in some ways to the innovation labs that have been springing up in a variety of sectors in recent years - among retail and financial firms in particular. It is one of seven such labs run by HCL globally, with others focusing on digital transformation in other industries.

This particular initiative will see a number of HCL staff stationed at the stadium in Manchester’s Salford area to test new services, allowing the club, its partners,  and even supporters, to provide feedback, before rolling out more widely.

This means developing a “holistic” platform for all its digital media, HCL said. The scope could potentially incorporate everything from predictive analytics to overhauling customer relationship management systems and development of mobile apps.

Further down the line there could also be apps developed for fans within the stadium, potentially similar to the types of services available at Wembley Stadium, such as the ability to provide sales vouchers during games.

“We are looking at building the enabler so that Manchester United can then create and distribute content in different ways,” said HCL’s CEO, Anant Gupta.

“The lab will allow the fans as well other partners to look at what is being built and participate in, not just the user experience side of it, but the functionality itself and what content they are likely to want to see.”

Exact details of what will be created has not been decided, and the innovation lab will be an ongoing project to identify relevant technology to achieve Manchester Untied’s aims, says HCL.

However, the outsourcing firm told Techworld that the focus will begin with revamping the club website and connecting its various regional mobile apps to create a digital media platform that is “ready to scale”.

This will provide a foundation from which the two organisatoins will identifying new opportunities to develop digital services that engage fans, the cub said.

From a fan perspective this could mean meeting the desire for information on the club and its players making them more accessible across the world, providing video content or running competitions.

For shareholders this could mean tapping a huge customer data base as a revenue stream.

Although it is not entirely clear how Manchester United plan to do this at this stage, the ability to connect with its fans online and via mobile apps opens a number of avenues to further swell the coffers of what is already one of the world’s highest earning clubs.

A better use of data and predictive analytics to understand who the club’s fans are makes it easier to tailor services across different regions, for instance.

“We work very hard at making sure we measure what fans are interested in,” said Manchester United’s Arnold. “This partnership allows us to take a huge leap forward in the quality of that data in terms of the depth and breadth of analytics, which allows us to further enhance what we offer to fans to make it the right content, in the right format, set up for the right device in the right way that allows for whatever bandwidth they have at that point in time.

“When you look at the complexity of doing that for one fan and then you multiply that by two hundred countries, twenty seven languages and all the different mechanisms for engaging those it is a complex business.”

And for HCL, there could be further opportunities too. The outsourcing giant believes that digital services created as part of its partnership with Manchester United could potentially be replicated in other sports such as cricket in India or basketball in the US.

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