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Meet the man pushing cricket’s digital boundaries
An interview with Julian Goode, head of new media at the England and Wales Cricket Board
An interview with Julian Goode, head of new media at the England and Wales Cricket Board
The England and Wales Cricket Board provides an interesting study in digital. Looking after men’s and women’s national teams at all levels, playing all year round, as well as all domestic leagues from April- September, it’s rare that there’s a day without cricket being played. The Board also looks after the grassroots side of the game, promoting cricket to everyone from children to armchair fans to people looking for a coaching course. For the ECB, fan engagement goes beyond clicks and revenue as they have a mandate to promote the sport itself as well as just the teams. It’s a vast and complicated setup that is enhanced by a sophisticated network of digital platforms, encompassing social media, video and the very successful apps. I met with Julian Goode, ECB’s head of new media, to discuss fans, data and the role of digital in sport.
The ECB was something of an early adopter when it comes to using digital platforms. The actual game of cricket itself was one of the first to embrace technology and your app, for example, is very sophisticated. Why do you feel that is the case with cricket compared with other sports?
It’s interesting because people often look at cricket and think it’s traditional and stuffy, all blazers and tea breaks. But I think it’s down to the people who were working at the company back in the mid-nineties having the foresight with our IT setup and seeing that there was something in digital. That’s why we were up and running ahead of other sports in this country. We understood very early on that you can achieve a lot without a huge spend if you know what you’re doing with digital. It’s always been driving huge value for money. We also work with good people, and you can’t underestimate the value of good partnerships — we’ve always worked with good digital agencies and have a good relationship with Apple, for instance. It’s doing things in the right way at the right time.
How much do you think it has to do with a need to innovate due to concerns over growing and retaining an audience for the sport, in a way that football, for instance, doesn’t have the same imperative?
It’s hard to quantify, but everything we’ve done has been underpinned by the ECB’s larger strategy. I think there’s been a realisation that the digital side has a role to play in that. Of course, it won’t be the sole way you solve some of those challenges but it can support what’s going on and bring cost effective ways of spending money to drive engagement in a way that might have been difficult in an offline world.
How have you found that people are generally using your apps? Is it predominantly as a substitute for watching the games, or is it as a second-screen experience?
I’ve sat in school assemblies where someone in the row in front of me has whipped out their iPhone and opened their ECB app to check the score. That’s the most common use we’ve found — that people are generally using it away from cricket, away from broadcast media, away from any other sources of information that they can get to.
They present information that adds to the experience in-ground if you’re lucky enough to be able to get on wifi or 3G, or sat in front of the TV, or listening to Test Match Special on the radio. In all kinds of different ways it tops it up and it gives people an easier way to consume the stuff they want quite quickly. We have quite a big website full of a lot of information, you might have to work harder to find exactly what you want, but on the app you can’t fail to get on there easily and find scores, latest videos from the last day or two, and away you go. It’s a very easy, simple thing.
As a sports fan, you want to see the match. If you can’t be at the ground, you watch the match on TV. If you can’t watch TV, you’d do what I did the other day and have a frustrating experience trying to stream ITVplayer live on my phone on the train home. If I couldn’t have done that, I’d have been following on Twitter or on a live blog somewhere. And if I couldn’t have done that, I’d have just been miserable and got home as soon as possible! People have the degree of consumption that’s closest to the game and the best they can get away with depending on where they are.
Is there anything that you feel you get from the digital experiences that TV and radio just can’t offer?
I suppose the main thing is that the digital platforms give people a degree of control over their experience. If you’re following on our iPad app, you can go back and re-watch what happened five balls ago, and see what was pitched and what was scored off it, and so on. With live broadcast, fans are being pushed at and broadcasters are choosing the stats they push at you.
And the same goes for if you’re lucky enough to be at the ground. You know that you can always find the information you need digitally, if that’s simply the opposition’s lineup because you haven’t bought a programme, for example. I’m a Brighton fan and I know that I will check Twitter at about 2:10 to see the team that’s been announced, because it’ll come on there quicker than it comes on the big screen in the ground. There’s an increasing imperative on sports teams to improve stadium connectivity so that people can continue to check the information sources that they normally look at while they’re inside the stadium. While it’s still best to be at the match, people will want to keep consuming some of the stuff that they would be consuming if they were sat on the sofa second-screening or doing whatever they do while they’re watching on live TV. The next big thing for us is what we do with that in-stadium connectivity.
We had a contentious comment from one of our colleagues last week who, when we were talking about data, posed the question: will there ever be a time when the data itself is more entertaining than the sport?
I don’t think so. Without the sport still being great and without the people being there to watch it, it’s not an event. It won’t have the passion and excitement around it for it to still be a sport. You may as well be throwing dice and writing the results on a scorecard yourself. It still has to be there. That’s the reason why broadcasters pay so much to broadcast the sport because they know it’s an event that people care about and would really love to be at, so you take the next option. The ever- increasing amount of data that’s captured is still adding to the sport but it’s still not replacing the event itself, which has to be captivating and make you want to part with time and money to follow it. I don’t see that changing. It’s obviously evolving. If it ever tips the other way and the digital experience becomes more important than the sport then we will have lost something.
I think the line draws itself. I just don’t see that one exists without the other. There’s no immediate need to report on a sport if a sport’s not great in the first place. We have to work hard to make out sports events worthwhile things for people to want to see, to keep them coming through the door.
There is always a debate about technology and sport helping decision-making, and where that line is. It’s funny that in the case of cricket, you could say that it’s enhanced the sport perhaps in a way that wasn’t intended. Although it was introduced for more accurate decision-making, isn’t what it’s created almost theatre?
It is a bit, but it has the basis of truth. Without that being there, there wouldn’t be the theatre. It’s the euphoric moment, the waiting, the revelation of the truth. American Football and Cricket both have breaks in play, so it doesn’t matter to the fan if you have to wait for another thirty seconds. We have to be conscious that the experience in the stadium doesn’t fall down to the detriment of what’s being given to the broadcast viewer. I think that goes for all sports — you have to make sure the fans are involved like everyone else, not sat thinking ‘what’s going on’, which is why I don’t think it would work for a sport like football.
As well as the information and data that you can give about the live event, what else do you find that fans are asking for on digital platforms, how else do they engage with the sports — perhaps around the edges of the game?
We want to show fans the stuff that they can’t see anywhere else. As a fan, you want to see everything that’s going on around the club and your team, all those moments when you’re not there for that slot of live action, so being able to hear what the individuals concerned have to say about particular moments and matches, and to be able to see them doing something extra — whether it’s in a video of six seconds or six minutes — is an added-value experience.
And are you looking at emerging technologies to find new ways of doing that?
We’ve already been using Google Glass. We did various training sessions with the women’s team, using Google Glass on players who are fielding, Go Pros behind the stumps when people are batting, people running up and down with them on while they’re bowling. And they work really well! Why wouldn’t a fan want to watch that? You’re getting so close to it.
We’ll continue to do as much of that as we can, while of course being conscious that we’re not interfering with what they’ve got to do — which is being professional athletes, practicing and playing matches. We have to bring in the technology in a way that enhances them, showing off how much effort and dedication goes into preparing for matches and how much skill is involved. Last week we did a short vine of players training, flying through the air doing catches, and within a week it had half a million loops. We hope that getting people closer to the sport will make them want to go out and pick up a cricket ball, and start playing themselves. The sport and all our partners benefit from the experience we’re bringing fans.
What do you think is the next big digital area of exploration for yourselves and other sporting bodies?
I don’t know about you but I feel like things have plateaued out and there isn’t a clear ‘next big thing’ on the horizon. We’ll be doing more and more video and capturing more and more data as richly as we can. I think we’ll be working on getting the video experience closer and using more in-depth, behind-the-scenes content. There will certainly be an explosion of smart TVs, so there will be more we could push into, for example, an ECB Cricket channel on a connected TV. But it doesn’t feel like there’s anything brand new coming through. We may be surprised, though!
How do you think the in-stadium connectivity should be implemented?
It should enhance the engagement. If a fan is interacting with you in the stadium, they should be able to see a reflection of it while they’re inside the physical space. People have tried things there, but they’ll become more common as technology becomes easier and cheaper to implement — of course there’s benefit available to sponsors there, too.
Are there any sports that you think are using digital platforms particularly well?
We can all learn from what goes on in the States from the mass of content that’s produced. But they have a different broadcast market that allows them to do things differently and bring more video to screen quicker than the way digital rights are managed in Europe. But, I don’t think we should underestimate what we’re doing in this country. Between ourselves, the FA, the RFU and Wimbledon, people produce some great digital platforms and channels for people to support their teams. There
are lessons to be learned from the digital output across NBA, MLB, NFL, but we’re dealing with a very different media market and commercial structures.
It seems like it really comes down to content. Getting the technology right is a way of getting content out in better ways.
As the technology gets quicker and better, it’s our job to keep pace with the uniqueness and the complexity of the content experience we give people, so they want to keep coming back. Whether it’s apps or big screens that you control by waving your arms around, they’re all just channels for delivering content. It will still be iterations of the sport that’s there in the first place. Technology is just going to be about finding faster, more immersive ways of getting the content to them.
And of course that’s great for sports or teams that don’t traditionally have the coverage from major broadcasters and media channels. If there’s an audience there, for whatever sport, there’s content to be produced and delivered. So it’s not inconceivable that a non-league football fan should have the same content as, say, an Arsenal fan. There’s no reason why, if there’s an audience there to watch it, a small cricket club in north London shouldn’t live-stream their games. The technology is there to do it cheaply and easily, so there’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t.