The aim was to recreate football’s emotional pull, but nobody thought it would look like this. As Patrick Mortensen sidefooted home a stoppage-time equaliser for AGF Aarhus against local rivals Randers, the club’s head of media, Soren Carlsen, stood on the touchline at Ceres Park. He’d been distracted by the “virtual stand” his team painstakingly created for the Danish Superliga’s return, a screen 130 feet long and 10 feet high (40 meters x three meters) running along one stand, displaying the images of 10,000 fans connected to the match via video conferencing tool Zoom.
Sat in the comfort and confinement of their living room due to the coronavirus pandemic, an elderly couple celebrated Mortensen’s goal, which confirmed AGF’s place in the playoffs.
“The woman, she rose up from her seat and kissed her husband,” said Carlsen. “It was such an intimate moment. You can’t see that an ordinary game — you just see a lot of faces or a big crowd celebrating together. We wanted to create an atmosphere and so it was a bonus for everyone to get a personal connection like that.”
The benefits are being sought worldwide. Last Thursday, Denmark became only the second country in western Europe after Germany to restart their domestic league, and AGF were the first to do so with supporters in virtual attendance. Their innovation has prompted calls from several Premier League clubs, including Arsenal, exploring the logistics and examining whether technology can create an immersive fan experience which simultaneously helps restore a home advantage that early statistics indicate has been lost in behind-closed-doors fixtures.
“It is almost easier to say which countries we didn’t get inquiries from,” said Carlsen. “Clubs from the top five leagues — England, France, Italy, Spain and Germany — and also, Austria, Norway and on Tuesday I talked to Australia, Major League Soccer in the United States. They are curious about how it could work, both clubs and the leagues themselves.”
Supporters are unlikely to be allowed back into stadiums for several months, but technology may be about to bring many of them closer than previously thought possible.
The Premier League has spent recent weeks trying to balance a genuine appetite for football’s return with safety concerns as the coronavirus continues to take hundreds of lives on a daily basis in the United Kingdom. That conversation has advanced to a provisional return date of June 17, with the vast majority of fixtures staged at their usual venues, meaning thoughts can now turn to how clubs make their stadiums feel more like home.
Arsenal have been one of the more proactive clubs in recognising the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on football. They remain the only team to agree a wage cut with their first-team squad as opposed to a deferral, and head coach Mikel Arteta instigated a two-hour conference call with the coach of NFL side Los Angeles Rams, Sean McVay, to discuss how training could be made secure against the virus.
Although both clubs officially refused to confirm they had spoken, sources have told ESPN that Arsenal contacted AGF after the Danish Superliga’s resumption on May 28 as part of a wider brief examining how Emirates Stadium could be modified to maximum effect. It’s a journey Carlsen and his backroom team know well.
AGF Aarhus let thousands of fans into their stadium via Zoom, showcasing the world’s first virtual grandstand.
“When we first started out on this venture,” Carlsen said, “we were set two challenges: one was how do we engage the fans in these coronavirus times? The other was from our football department, asking ‘could you guys in the back office do something to create an atmosphere and a sense of support in the stadium?’
“It was an opportunity for us to recreate the community around the games that we are missing because, of course, everybody is missing football as a sport but in Denmark we miss the camaraderie and the fans.”
The inspiration came from a weekly Danish television show aiming to bring people together during lockdown.
“There’s a show every Friday night where you have artists singing from their homes and just a few viewers singing along via video,” said Carlsen. “There was a community there around singing. So we thought ‘could we do that, just on a much bigger scale?'”
AGF reached out to Zoom, who expressed their excitement at the idea and offered logistical support. The club rented huge screens from one of their local sponsors, improved the Wi-Fi inside their Ceres Park stadium and began inviting season-ticket holders to apply for free to virtually attend the Randers match — the first Danish Superliga game in almost three months. Due to rights issues, the match could not be broadcast via Zoom so fans would have to watch on television and log in to Zoom on another device to take part. Fans would be “seated” in their usual place in the stands, with the club organising it so that the smaller Zoom meetings would contain everyone supporters would usually sit with on matchday.
“It could never be the same, but we wanted to recreate the feeling when you go to a stadium,” said Carlsen. “You often see people you only see at stadiums, so maybe when you go to a game there is a guy shouting at the players on your right. Somewhere else there is someone yelling at their husband when the opposing team scores. Zoom helped us recreate that in meetings arranged by the stadium seating plan. It is important. You don’t see these people every day now because of coronavirus, but they are your family when you go to your home ground.”
Ceres Park holds 20,000 supporters; 10,000 took up the opportunity to take part via Zoom, including smaller screens for neutral and away fans. Pre-recorded sound was piped through the stadium loudspeakers, and the delay in fan reaction prompted by watching the game on their televisions actually helped the broadcasters.
“The television companies liked it because they could use the fan celebration like a normal Premier League game, cutting away to the stands to see happy supporters,” said Carlsen. “This time, after showing the goal and the players’ reaction, they cut away to people’s homes. The delay wasn’t a big problem.
“It helped us a lot that we had sound in the stadium. The team and the manager wanted that. We had pre-recorded sounds from previous games, then some sounds from the Zooms and we were able to mix that up.
“We couldn’t use 10,000 people’s microphones so we took a small section of the Zoom meetings. But it worked very well and it is almost as loud as a regular game. The players told me afterwards that it helped them. They went out to clap and say hello to the fans. That was a surreal picture. Normally, they go and cheer with the fans, here they go to applaud a screen. The fans applauded back. It was like an image out of [Charlie Brooker’s television show] ‘Black Mirror’ but one of the happy episodes!”
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So could this really work in the Premier League? AGF is one of the few stadiums in Europe with a running track, affording the club sufficient space to erect giant screens along one side of the ground.
“Our advice has been ‘don’t use your pre-existing big screens because often they are very high in the stadium,'” said Carlsen. “You need screens down at pitch level because it creates a better atmosphere for the players and the broadcasters. Different, but better. One of the fun parts of participating in this for fans is waiting to see yourself on the television, just like when they go to stadiums for real.”
That can lead to issues, however. AGF were forced to “throw out” two fans during the Randers game for exposing themselves on their Zoom call. There were 50 moderators checking everyone’s behaviour during the game, an important lesson for any bigger clubs looking to scale up the operation in larger stadiums.
“The biggest cost was man hours,” said Carlsen. “We needed to work on the internet connection, the fibre-optic cables and setting up the big screens. But everybody can go out and rent something [like that], so for the Premier League clubs considering this, the financial side should not stop them.”
Danish football has only just resumed, but any indication that home advantage could be restored will be of great interest to any club. In eight Superliga matches, there have been just two home victories and one of them came in AGF’s second home game against Odense Boldklub on Monday.
The Bundesliga’s resumption in Germany has produced just eight home wins from 35 games. This trend has been reproduced along similar lines in Estonia and the Czech Republic. More evidence is required to determine whether the virtual presence of fans can redress the balance, but Carlsen is convinced the human touch it creates taps into the zeitgeist.
“This won’t be something we see once the coronavirus is over,” he added. “What the virus has shown us is how important fans are and the community around the club. We all love football but we miss the community more, the camaraderie and spirit that is a football club. I will be excited to watch how this technology will be used in the Premier League because a lot of them are global brands. How will it work when they have fans all over the world who want to take part? Could you have 100,000 fans take part and how will it affect the intimacy?”
We may soon find out.