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Technology & Football in a double pass

Football is not a one-size-fits-all affair – we are interested in different teams, players and facts, and use different channels to do so. At the German Bundesliga, Andreas Heyden ensures that fans get to see what they want, how they want it, and where they want it. In this interview, he tells us how he manages this and what role augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and 5G play in the process.

Oliver Bosse spoke with Andreas Heyden

Mr Heyden, you take on an extraordinarily important task in German football: To drive the Bundesliga forward with digital innovations. With this rapid change and progress in technology, is that more of an opportunity or a challenge?
I would say it depends on the approach. It would not be very promising to chase innovation for innovation's sake, driven by new developments and trends. Our approach is to drive innovation based on changes in customer behavior. With this customer-centricity as a lodestar, opportunities in the area of technology can be identified and implemented in a much more targeted manner.

Do customers always know what they want?
Sure, if Henry Ford had asked people back then what they needed, the answer would probably have been "faster horses". It's about recognising the need behind it – in this case, to get from A to B faster and then finding the right means to achieve that.

What new technologies are you currently working on?
Our big topics are currently augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G. The latest mobile technology is enormously important, especially at a time when 50% of global internet traffic takes place on smartphones, and is the basis for many developments. We speak of the "technology triangle". AI is the prerequisite for satisfying the need for localised and personalised content. In addition, we are convinced that the future will be "augmented". The curiosity and the need for it are there. I believe in a "post-smartphone area". Who wants to stare into that little screen all the time. I want things to float around me. Almost 30% of people in Germany wear glasses anyway and sooner or later they will become AR devices. Who knows if we will even experience AR contact lenses?

Are you already dealing with augmented reality in concrete terms?
Yes, two years ago we presented a case with an augmented reality app in the stadium in Wolfsburg. You hold your smartphone on the pitch and data such as player names, the speed of a player or his ball contacts are displayed in real time. In the meantime, development has continued here as well …

But AR glasses are not yet on the horizon?
We are working on that, too. Together with the manufacturer of Mixed Reality Glasses "Nreal", we have made a test. You could watch the German Supercup between Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Munich through their semi-transparent glasses in front of you on the table or on the wall. We didn't know how our test persons would feel about this experience and even made bets after how many minutes they would take off their glasses. But in fact, the enthusiasm and emotions were huge – and the glasses stayed on for the whole first half.

You mentioned that there is a need for localised or even personalised content. Can you elaborate a little on that?
There is a distinction to be made between regionalisation and localisation and personalisation. Localisation, for example, is about the fact that for Japanese fans, the most relevant Bundesliga clubs are those with Japanese players. That means we have to be able to configure our "world feed" into a Japanese feed.

And how do you do that?
What we already do is to publish a summary of all the actions of Japanese players shortly after the final whistle of a match – and not manually, but everything is completely automated by our colleague robot, i.e. AI. Thanks to several satellites, we are also in a position to generate different live signals for certain regions and thus, for example, to make individual openers, i.e. to whet the appetite for the Bundesliga matches in the different regions of the world with their own trailer. Another possibility is to have an additional camera in the stadium, the "Star Cam", which only stays on the Japanese top player and to deliver these images exclusively to the corresponding control room.

And personalisation is then the tip of the iceberg: giving each individual exactly what he or she is interested in?
Personalisation would mean sending out a million individualised streams, so to speak, for cumulative interest groups. That's what it boils down to. Through our social media feeds, among other things, we have become accustomed to only being shown what interests us. For me, it's maybe every twentieth or thirtieth video on TikTok that doesn't appeal to me. The algorithms are already that good. And that's how the Bundesliga media product is measured.

For Bayern Munich fans only Bayern Munich – it's not that simple, is it?
Let's assume I was a Dortmund fan: Then of course I would want to know everything about Dortmund, hardly everything about Bayern, but I might still want to see Lewandowski's 5-pack and only hear about Schalke as my biggest local rival when they lose. So the masterpiece is to get this mix right. Of course, this can't be curated manually, but has to happen with the help of machine learning, like Amazon Personalize in our case.

So the basis is data and technology - what is needed in summary?
Roughly speaking, the recipe would be as follows: As a basis, everything must certainly be legally compliant in terms of data protection, etc. That sounds boring, but it is important. There is nothing worse than creating a product that is then shot down by the data protection officer. The second step is to have databases that are as accessible as possible for internal use and the right ones to solve the desired challenges. Finally, to build personalisation, it needs a serverless infrastructure to scale quickly and, of course, a good number of processors. Thanks to autoscaling in the cloud, this is possible today; just 10 years ago, entire server farms would have gone to their knees when trying to process data from hundreds of thousands of users in parallel.

The data from the games are also all collected and stored and can be analysed and compared using technology. Among other things, the probability of a goal can be calculated. Does this have the potential to advance football beyond entertainment?
What is possible depends very much on the available data. It is already possible to use data analysis to interpret behaviour on the pitch and to have benchmarks on how players can develop further or which changes in a game strategy have which effects. Predicting a player's career, on the other hand, is hardly possible because there are too many unknown variables. It is also questionable whether the machine learning models will be able to calculate the probability of a goal in a game with 22 protagonists, a ball and a referee several minutes in advance, in order to set up an "alert", so to speak, for which game a goal could soon be scored.

Apart from personalisation, future-oriented devices and more insights, what other demands do fans have on the content of the Bundesliga media product these days?
Very good question. I would describe football as the only topic in society that unites all classes. Saturday 3.30 p.m. means football for 30 million people. So the audience is self-explanatory extremely diverse and correspondingly diverse are the demands and needs and also how they want to consume Bundesliga. You could say that fan behaviour is an equation with many variables.

So it's a multitude of content channels through which fans have to be addressed?
Yes, that is one of our challenges. As I mentioned, we analyse fan behaviour, which of course changes over time. Among other things, we can observe that certain developments move from certain social subgroups to the centre of society. A good example is Instagram, which I have been using for 10 years and which has now also reached my mother. Some are also faster, such as WhatsApp. You have to stay alert and draw the right conclusions at the right time.

What does your personal "media experience of the future" look like?
You have to distinguish between media experiences of other kinds and sport. Sport takes on a unique role. So when we talk about sport, it's the personalisation I mentioned – there are things that interest me and things that don't interest me. I only want to see the former. Further, I want to be able to interact socially around the media experience. A higher level of interactivity in terms of chats, for example, and another form of delivery that is socially closer to me with donations, subscriptions and so on – a "twitchisation", so to speak. And last but not least, sport has to become more non-invasive, the media barrier of a smartphone has to be dropped and replaced by augmented devices. I don't want a brain interface, but something that can be worn naturally on the human body while not shielding me from the outside world.

Andreas Heyden tells us more about the Bundesliga's development into one of the most innovative media companies in the world in his Sparx episode "11 Friends & AI".

About Andreas Heyden

Andreas Heyden is Managing Director of DFL Digital Sports GmbH and Executive Vice President Digital Innovations at the DFL Deutsche Fussball Liga Group. Heyden is responsible for the digital platforms as well as the production and distribution of national and international media content. Previously, Heyden held various executive positions at leading companies such as maxdome GmbH or RTL.


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