I am just back from a trip to watch my football team (Southampton) play Manchester United at St Mary’s Stadium. The game was a pulsating 1-1 draw which left the home fans optimistic about the potential of a young team. The “matchday experience” – as football clubs euphemistically describe the process of attending a game – was atrocious, largely due to technology failures.

17 months of preparation

At some point during the lockdown period, the club decided to install new stadium access technology.

Previously season ticket holders had been supplied with a smart card with (I presume) an RFID chip embedded. This was supplemented with barcode technology for one-off match purchases. The system worked well and provided access to the stadium quickly and effectively.

Whatever testing had taken place on the new system was clearly not adequate. While those with season tickets were still able to gain access to the ground, it seemed that every other paper barcode failed to scan properly. We saw people waiting at turnstiles for four or five minutes before gaining access. By kick off, thousands of fans remained outside the ground and the club was forced to issue a refund to every attendee at the game for the cost of their ticket. My estimate is this will cost between £600,000 to £1 million in refunds.

Technology reliance – and failure

This is a stark reminder of the costs of getting technology wrong. Southampton Football Club admitted that during Covid it was losing approximately £3 million per month; so, the consequences of handing back the first chunk of matchday revenue it has received since March 2020 is significant. Considering that a proportion of those locked out might well have additionally spent money on food or drinks if they had been able to access the venue earlier, simply increases the losses associated with this failure. It seems that Southampton was not the only club impacted. This suggests that multiple clubs omitted to test systems with anything like the robustness required to ensure zero risk of failure.

In different circumstances this could have been a significant public order issue. As recently as July, the limitations of mobile ticketing systems were exposed at the Euro 2020 final in London. Fans were reportedly sharing screen grabs of legitimate tickets to gain multiple access to the venue, leaving legitimate ticket holders without the ability to access the ground.

Deploying technology is often seen as the “holy grail” – enabling businesses to both save money and improve the customer experience.  But things can go wrong and when they do the consequences can be huge.  Every new technology implementation needs to be seen with as much caution as optimism – as football venues are starting to realise to their own cost.