Football club mobile apps: are they worth the effort?

Football club apps

Mobile apps have been around for more than 10 years now. Thanks to the likes of WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook, most of us are pretty familiar with using them. When we’re not tapping an swiping through our favourite social media tools we may also use mobile applications to quench our thirst for the latest football scores, news, and transfer information.

Like most areas of modern life, football has a proliferation of mobile apps looking to give us all the latest information at the touch of a button. There are regular articles in magazines, newspapers and online about which ones are best. These lists, however, seldom feature official club apps. The numbers behind them suggest fans aren’t sold either. 5 Premier League clubs, Bournemouth, Leicester, Newcastle, Southampton, and West Ham, don’t even have an official app.

Of the ones that do only 3 Premier League clubs; Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have over 1 million downloads on the Google (Android) Play app store. Compare that with the 3 clubs’ numbers on Twitter which are 20, 15 and 13 million followers respectively. So, why is it that people don’t tend to think highly of our favourite clubs’ offerings in the digital marketplace? They have plenty of content to offer and more than enough money to spend on them.

What do official club apps offer?

The main issue for these apps is that they rarely offer a product that cannot be found somewhere else. The main attraction for a mobile application should be that it offers convenience or a service that just isn’t available on a website or social media tool. My favourite example from the world of football is the Groundhopper app. It allows me to keep a record of all matches I go to, including checking-in while I’m there, as well as lookup fixtures in my local area on any given day.

To keep pace with trends in internet browsing which are skewed towards the use of mobile devices most clubs have invested in making their websites more mobile-friendly. Watford for example recently re-built their website specifically for mobile users. And in the last few weeks, Everton have added accessibility features to theirs. This means that club apps lose the advantage of convenience. A website with the same content can be accessed just as easily, and you don’t need to go to an online app store to download and keep it updated.

The 3 big hitters in the app market, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal all promote their offerings on the promise of exclusive content like player interviews, personalisation features’ such as notifications, that keep you up to date with the latest news, and in-game features. United’s app even provides stats as part of their live match experience.

While appealing to plenty of fans these are all features that can be found in other places. News can often be found faster on Twitter (or other social networks) where it doesn’t have to go through a club’s official sign-off procedure before publication. In-game stats can be found on other websites and stats focused apps that regularly top the charts in the football genre. Exclusive content is often more engaging when it comes directly from the players themselves on their specific online channels.

There is, however, another thing that these clubs have in common. They all have a big fan base in foreign markets. The fourth and fifth most popular apps in the Premier League belong to Manchester City and Liverpool – 2 more global powerhouses. There is then a big drop-off to the rest of the league in terms of download numbers. It could be that these apps are downloaded and used more often outside of the UK where fans are looking for a closer connection to the club they’ve chosen to follow. The premise of all your club content in one central place makes more sense in this scenario.

Football club apps
In-game services are common in football club apps

What can apps do to offer more to local users?

For club applications to increase their downloads, and entice fans, in their local territories they will need to offer something you can’t get on the club website. The big potential growth area here is ticketing. Most clubs now outsource their online ticketing offering through specialist ticketing software providers, like Ticketmaster. As a result, the online user experience differs once you move from the club website to the ticketing company’s external portal.

This change in location can often cause issues for mobile users. It can even cause confusion as potential ticket buyers find themselves on a different platform, which might not be as mobile-friendly, preventing them from completing their purchase. I often find myself having to wait until I have access to a desktop computer or laptop before I buy any tickets.

Some clubs are already looking to make ticketing part of the service provided by their app. Queens Park Rangers and Swansea are two looking at this area. Both clubs allow fans to store tickets in their app via an online ‘ticket wallet’. This means they can use their phone to keep their ticket and swipe to gain entry, Swansea even offer fans the option through the app to request a paper ticket as a keepsake. While these services still require users to leave the app when they are making a purchase it’s still the first step towards a complete app-based ticketing journey, which would be a huge attraction for match-going fans.

Both QPR and Swansea currently play in the Football League where the application landscape is somewhat different from the Premier League. The EFL offers a subscription service called iFollow for fans to watch or listen to their matches live (as long as they’re not a 3pm Saturday fixture) and watch replays and highlights of their games later. In most cases, these subscriptions are offered to fans in apps, some designed by the clubs themselves but many are designed by the EFL.

This is another good example of where apps can fulfill the need of fans to be able to follow their team’s matches wherever they are, although download numbers are still relatively modest. Perhaps fans are put off by the subscription price or EFL clubs don’t have a huge demand for the service beyond fans who go to the actual games regularly.

Football club apps
An app could save on ticket queuing times

Club apps of the future

The immediate future for official club apps may lie in ticketing and subscriptions but there is also potential room in the aggregation of content. There are no shortage of unofficial fan apps out there that claim to bring online content about a particular club together in one place. These apps often flatter to deceive but it could be an idea harnessed by clubs in their official offerings.

Clubs could offer a variety of content in one place that includes fan-generated content as well as the official stuff. Done properly it could be a great addition to the matchday fan experience, perhaps even offering a new digital way of presenting the matchday programme. Currently, the risk-averse nature of official content means its often driven by PR with a strong club spin. I find this less appealing than more independent content, but there are some signs of a more adventurous outlook.

Bristol City recently launched an app that collates pictures provided by fans on social media attending games that helps to tell the story of the day. It fits naturally on the app and helps fans feel more involved in the experience provided by their club. It’s a step in the right direction and an idea I’m sure we’ll see much more of in the near future.

For now, however, apps will largely be for fans who watch from afar in different countries or via their streaming subscriptions more than the match-going supporters.