Why top football clubs are making Hackathon their latest signing

6 minute read

When you think about top football clubs, it’s unlikely that digital innovation is the first thing that springs to mind. Leo Messi scoring yet another wonder goal is probably higher up the list. However, Europe’s finest (and FIFA itself) are starting to realise the potential of hackathons to drive innovation and gain an advantage over the competition. It’s surely no coincidence that leading the way — and first on our list — is Manchester City. Because having the best-dressed coach in the game just isn’t enough…

Manchester City hackathon

Manchester City

Since their high-profile takeover a little over ten years ago, Manchester City has built a reputation for being one of the most technologically progressive clubs in world football. Back in 2016, City teamed up with tech companies Opta Pro and ChyronHego to become the first ever Premier League club to host a hackathon at the club’s City Football Academy.

With teams competing for a cash prize, anyone over the age of 16 was invited to enter #HackMCFC, and the contestants were given access to classified data insights from ten City games the previous season. The challenge was to develop new ideas that could enhance players’ movement, passing, running and pressure on the pitch, with the winning team developing a machine learning algorithm which tracked in-game decision making. (So powerful it could even keep up with Kevin De Bruyne.)

Due to the success of their inaugural hackathon, City returned in 2017 with #HackManCity, this time challenging teams to discover innovative ways for the club to engage with its fans digitally. In a split decision, two great concepts walked away with a cash prize — an armband that links its wearer to the official City app, and a mobile app to connect visiting fans with local supporters to enhance their matchday experience.

‘We are delighted with the success of Manchester City’s second hackathon… Many insightful concepts and ideas were presented this weekend and we look forward to exploring some of these further.’

— Diego Gigliani, Senior Vice-President, Media & Innovation, City Football Group

Chelsea

Following hot on the heels of Premier League rivals Manchester City, west London giants Chelsea are another club who understand the innovation potential that hackathons offer. Last year, The Blues launched their second hackathon, off the back of successful previous events.

In true hackathon style, the team was made up of Chelsea staff members from different departments, and they were joined by an employee from Microsoft to give an outside perspective. The goal was to address the challenges the club faces in the short, medium, and long term, with a focus on the impending upheaval from their Stamford Bridge home to a new, state-of-the-art stadium. 

Chelsea have unearthed working partners from previous hackathons, so it will be fascinating to see what this latest iteration produces. A virtual Eden Hazard perhaps? Fans might have to wait a few more years for that one.

Bayern Munich hackathon

Bayern Munich

One of the most decorated clubs in German fußball, Bayern Munich launched its inaugural hackathon last year. FC Bayern HackDays saw over 200 participants from 40 different countries invited to Munich’s iconic Allianz Arena for a weekend of innovation and discovery. 

The primary focus was Bayern’s fanbase — improving engagement, as well as reaching potential new fans.

To make it as authentic and inspiring as possible, HackDays was arranged around a live game between Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen, during which the hackathon teams engaged with fans to gather live feedback. The eventual winners harnessed this real-time data to create a gamified in-app experience, where users had to complete a specific challenge in order to be rewarded. Wunderbar!

‘The most important thing about digitalisation, for us, is the people involved. We need to change mindsets, we need to be very open to learning. We don’t just need to digitalise our infrastructure, but our entire club.’

— Benjamin Stoll, Head of Digital Strategy, Platforms & Innovation, FC Bayern

Swansea City

The Swans, who enjoyed an impressive stretch in the Premier League before being relegated two seasons ago, saw what the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea were accomplishing with their hackathons and followed suit, launching their inaugural hackathon earlier this year. 

Keen to build on their emerging reputation for digital innovation, the Championship club invited over 50 students from Swansea University to compete in the hackathon, which was set over 48 hours and centered around the team’s game against Millwall. The challenge was to identify barriers in the matchday experience for fans, and the concepts developed included entertainment improvements, seating enhancements, and purchasing solutions.

With this progressive approach, it won’t be a surprise to see Swansea back in the Premier League before long. Mark Davies, the club’s Global Head of Partnerships & Sales, said: ‘As a club that identifies a need to behave and grow differently to other teams, innovation will always be at the forefront of our operations. While the brief was related to technology, what really impressed us was the ‘hive’ mentality of the students in the room.’

AZ Alkmaar hackathon

AZ Alkmaar

Last year, AZ Alkmaar became the first football club in the Netherlands to organise a hackathon. The Eredivisie club is keen to be at the forefront of digital innovation within Dutch football, so invited 43 students from Ohio University to participate in a hackathon to help solve strategic challenges around data, digital and technology. 

Over 48 hours, the students — split into teams — focused on three different topics: predicting general sale ticket sales, building a business model around AZ’s digital assets, and improving the digital matchday programme. The hackathon was a huge success, with the students collaborating with the club’s in-house experts to great effect.

‘We will definitely build upon the insights gained from this experience. The level of the deliverables was very high, so we can definitely use them to solve some of our strategic challenges’.

— Bas Schnater, Fan Engagement & CRM Coordinator, AZ Alkmaar

FIFA and GitHub hackathon

FIFA

Football’s international governing body has also harnessed the benefits of running a hackathon. Prior to June’s exhilarating Women’s World Cup in France, FIFA announced the launch of a virtual hackathon in partnership with GitHub, the world’s leading software development company.

The hackathon, called ‘Give Voice to Football’, challenged developers to find creative ways to help football’s governing body engage with fans through digital technology and democratise innovation within the game. 

FIFA wanted to take advantage of the fact that by the end of 2018 there were already 2.5 billion digital voice assistants in use, a number that will rise to a whopping 8 billion by 2023. The winner of the hackathon would be the team who could find the best way to leverage this rise in technology and help FIFA best serve its fans.

 

These organisations are leading the way on digital innovation within the game. Their understanding of the many benefits a hackathon offers, both in the short and long term, will likely make other clubs sit up and take notice. Hackathons are by no means exclusive to football, of course. Traditionally pioneered by tech companies, the formula is being adopted by companies across an array of industries, to great effect.

If you’d like to learn more about the hackathon process, or how Gravitywell can help your business innovate with an internal hackathon, then please get in touch.

David Beckham using phone