Over the course of the past few years, a consistent refrain from those objecting to changes made in football, at all levels, has been that the game has gone. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the game has indeed gone.
As the major leagues in Europe kick off the new season, nothing is as it was. After a three-month hiatus from mid-March to mid-June, the 2019/20 Premier League season ended on 26 July. Then, with an unprecedentedly short gap, the 2020/21 season began on 12 September.
For Manchester City, which stayed in the Champions League until 15 August, the season started a week later. While the playing staff can appreciate the week’s grace, it means the club is playing catch-up from the kick-off.
But off the pitch, long before the old season recommenced in June, indeed as the ramifications of Covid-19 were beginning to become apparent across all industries, Manchester City the business was realising that changes had to be made. The game may not have gone, but it is certainly different, and may be so permanently.
And again, just as for all other industries, right at the heart of dealing with this different world is the IT department of the club, led by Greg Swimer, chief technology officer (CTO) at City Football Group.
Established in May 2013, City Football Group is the owner of football-related businesses in major cities around the world, including football clubs, academies, technical support and marketing companies. The group has majority-owned and operated clubs on three continents – New York City Football Club in the MLS, Sichuan Jiuniu in China League 2, and Melbourne City FC of the A-League in Australia. The mother club is Manchester City FC in the Premier League, which began life as St Mark’s West Gorton in 1880 – the club became Manchester City FC in 1894.
Reacting to change
Assessing the new job at hand in August 2020, Swimer accepted that, as for every company in every industry, a lot has changed over the past few months, in quite a dramatic and unexpected way, and there’s a need to respond to that. A job made harder by City Football Group being a large and complex business. This includes not just playing football, but also running facilities and supporting all of the functions that make up the business, such as marketing, human resources, finance, supporting the football staff, scientists, medical coaches, working with stadium facilities and, last but by no means least, working with the fans.
Despite everything that has happened, the horizon and the shape of those challenges remain quite constant, Swimer notes. “When we look out at the business over the next few years, we can see what we want to achieve in all those areas, how we want to develop our business, how we want to develop our football clubs,” he says.
Greg Swimer, City Football Group
“And [regarding] the technology challenges behind all those, what we work on has been very different in the past few months. We’ve moved to a virtual campus for staff who were previously based in our facilities. It was quite a sudden move of staff towards the end of February into March. So that’s [driven] the emphasis on collaboration technologies.”
Taking the clock back to earlier this year, what was involved in the process of getting ready for the new normal?
Swimer recalls that towards the end of February, he and his team were beginning to think about scenarios and the major risk factors in terms of technology support and how the company would address those. In this, the company was assisted by having its stake in Sichuan Jiuniu.
“Our business in China was affected a bit earlier than us. Football [in the UK] came to a screeching halt around the beginning of March. Since then, we’ve been working very hard [on the return], starting with the initial return of the players to contact at the academy, followed by contact training, followed by behind-closed-doors matches. A lot of our focus is on the safe return of fans at some point – when, not if – and [preparing] things to make that work.”
Over the past few months, businesses have found themselves transitioning from a primary focus on business continuity – that is dealing with the switch to almost exclusive home working – to a hybrid model supporting some office-based staff as well as those still at home. For City Football Group, the challenge is somewhat different, but similar, in so much as the basic attempt to run the business as normally as possible but having to present customers with very different offers.
In its return efforts, the company has been working with Cisco on doing what it would normally have done in one way, but doing it in a completely different way, such as how it engages with fans. One of those big differences is the way the company uses the WebEx conferencing solution. Covid-19 has meant the original plans for the year with Cisco have had to be revised, even if the centrepiece is still in place, says Swimer.
“We’ve got some big works going on around our network, [such as] improvement of network resilience and network security. We’re still in the process of that. There are a large number of changes around the network, our stadium [the Etihad] in Manchester, and we’re looking at emerging technology areas with Cisco around visual presentation of football in the stadium. All of that remains in place, [although] it’s been somewhat [changed] by the events of the last few months. There were a lot of ideas and innovations that we hadn’t really needed to consider before, through the partnership with Cisco we already had. WebEx at its core provides this excellent collaboration platform for secure visuals in high-definition quality.”
And these visuals are a novel way of engagement, taking the form of a video wall made up of LED screens onto which fans can record and play messages to offer a virtual bank of support. In the early weeks and months of lockdown, the club launched portals for fans at home and enhanced digital engagement with video content production.
By using WebEx, the club was also able to connect players to fans through events. “It has been about finding unique ways to use the technology, all of which comes with its own requirements, with different levels of control,” says Swimer. “We’ve just pushed WebEx into those new different uses and, generally speaking, it has been very easy to do.”
Looking at other opportunities the new technology could present, City Football Group is looking at opening a new facility with a training academy in Montevideo, Uruguay. In the first part of this strategy, the club organised an event over WebEx, which normally would have been done face-to-face.
Swimer believes more such opportunities will come up as the club starts to pivot the business in a more virtual way. But as this happens, what will it mean for the traditional role of the chief technology officer (CTO)? Will the new normal mean a commensurate pivot in terms of responsibilities and key performance indicators (KPIs)? Swimer believes that will not necessarily be the case, but that the stakes are higher than ever when it comes to the importance of technology.
“The reliance on the technology infrastructure backbone of the business is higher than it’s ever been. I’m not so sure that the KPIs are changing, but what clearly is the case is that the tolerance for any failure is much lower than it ever has been. And we set ourselves an incredibly high bar for that anyway.
“We have millions of stakeholders around the world, so we set ourselves a pretty high bar for resilience. For example, [new ways of working for the] call centre in the office in Manchester. Did our KPIs change? No, they didn’t; we’re delivering them in a completely different way to the standard. There are [now] things that were never previously delivered from anywhere other than the office, and then in a few days [we went] to delivering things in different locations, mostly people’s houses.”
But just as on the pitch, the IT organisation is totally reliant on teamwork and crucial to Swimer’s success in achieving the engagement and IT robustness for City Football Group has been the support of colleagues in a business where things are moving fast, just like a transition up the pitch.
“You need really high levels of teamwork and you need to have the partners in place [such as Cisco] which we have been fortunate [to have],” he observes. “As a leader or a CIO, you’ve got to triage quickly and try to work out what’s important and what’s not. We’ve been quite fortunate because we face the same challenges as everyone else, but looking back, there wasn’t one single thing that was a blocking issue that we had to resolve. With our global business we were already very virtualised, and we have been for a long time.
“Because of the nature of the football club, having 55,000 fans coming in and out of the premises every week or two, or sometimes every three days, the network had to be pretty resilient already. So the challenge was probably just dealing with lots of small challenges at once. We were able to get through it,” says Swimer.
So, with one game under its belt this season, what are City’s plans for the future?
There are, says Swimer, a number of key elements. Like every other football club, there is a constant dialogue regarding regulations and how the club is going to ensure fan safety, especially if there is a return for fans and a large number of people at the club, including many members of Swimer’s team who are involved in that workstream.
The second element involves improving the fan experience, whether that means those who attending games live or those watching on television. The new normal will be a mixed environment. For Swimer and his team, this means a continuation of the work patterns that have been undertaken since March, which have had rapid-build innovation cycles.
For Swimer, as a CTO with nine clubs around the world, it also means dealing with each business with its own cycles. This is how it is going to be – a whole new ball game indeed.