Iain McMenemy: I urge SFA to embrace new app which connects refs to fans

This is chance to for Scottish football to be pioneers, says Stenhousemuir chairman

Sunday, 13th September 2020, 7:30 am
Will Scottish referees like John Beaton welcome an app which is designed to help engagement with clubs, fans and broadcasters? Picture: Rob Casey / SNS

Sport is all about opinions. However, there is one topic where the overwhelming majority will agree, the last six months has been incredibly difficult for Scottish football.

As well as the mess we got ourselves into around ending the league and reconstruction, the deeper issues caused by the coronavirus and the shutdown have been incredibly difficult to deal with.

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That’s why I was delighted to play my part in generating some positive headlines for the game on Monday when we launched our tech revolution for Scottish football. This was where we unveiled our plans to have new camera systems installed at football grounds that are controlled by Artificial Intelligence. As well as this, we highlighted a new app that clubs and referees could use to better connect decision making on the pitch with supporters in the stands or at home.

Netflix's Mark Millar with Stenhousemuir chairman Iain McMenemy at the unveiling of a new AI camera system for Scottish football. Picture: Michael Gillen

Monday’s unveiling was the culmination of a lot of hard work that began in May of this year at the height of the Covid outbreak. Rather bizarrely, it all began when a Hollywood filmmaker and comic book writer vented his concerns for lower league Scottish football on social media. Mark Millar, pictured inset, is the guy behind films and comic books such as Kick Ass, Kingsman, and Marvel’s The Avengers, but he also happens to hail from Coatbridge where he continues to support his local club Albion Rovers. Now a president at Netflix, he clearly understands television and broadcasting.

Mark and I got our heads together along with a digital platform guru called Liam Nugent, and after exploring a number of ideas, we came up with an aspirational plan to put Scottish football at the forefront of a technical revolution.

The Pixellot camera system that was identified will film live matches and can broadcast them around the world. Whilst this in itself isn’t new, the technology behind it is. The system uses Artificial Intelligence and algorithms to track the play and provide an HD ready broadcast product. Therefore, practically no human intervention is required. Compare this to a Sky Sports broadcast that requires dozens of people and multiple outside broadcast trucks for each game. This technology makes live broadcast accessible to clubs at all levels.

The second piece of tech we identified was the we.soccer app. This is so simple, it is one of those times where you ask yourself why no-one has done this before? We.soccer is an app where the decision making on the pitch is relayed instantly to supporters in stadiums, at home, to club social media channels and to broadcasters.

Clubs can run the we.soccer app themselves, but the real benefit will come when it is adopted by referees. This would be where a ref on the pitch makes a decision, and rather than getting out the notepad and pen, they tap a few buttons on a smartphone worn on the forearm. The really interesting part, is that once that information is added by the ref, it is instantly relayed to the wider world. I don’t think there has ever been a better way to connect the official on the park, to supporters.

However, whilst the camera systems are being introduced right now and will be up and running in around 22-24 clubs out of the 30 teams in the SPFL Championship, Leagues 1 and 2 by the start of the season in October, the we.soccer app needs buy in from the Scottish FA and referees. This will be interesting. I really do hope that referees will see the benefits in better engagement and interaction with clubs, fans and broadcasters. The Covid pandemic may have dulled our memories of everything that happened in ‘the before-times’, but we should remember the difficult period that Scottish refereeing faced relatively recently.

There has been a lot of criticism thrown their way over the last few seasons and this of course built up to a crescendo point where the Scottish FA chief executive, head of referees, and the compliance officer held a summit with Premiership clubs, followed by a series of meetings at other levels in the game to calm the waters.

I recall writing a piece at the time, back in January last year, where I said it was too simplistic to simply blame referees for all the issues on the pitch. Many players are out to con the ref. Refs make split second decisions without the benefit that the pundits have to see every incident from multiple angles. However, I felt that the biggest issue was that referees work in bubbles, there is little to no formal interaction with players, managers, clubs and supporters.

They make decisions, and at times, tens of thousands of fans in the ground and at home have absolutely no idea what they saw and why they took the action they did. Contrast this to our modern connected world, where up to the second information is everywhere and interaction is universal. There is an expectation to be informed, and justifiable criticism when you’re kept in the dark.

This is a simple app, which from the referee’s perspective, requires nothing more different other than tapping a screen instead of scribbling in a book, but gives instant connection. If used, then we can consign to the dustbin the cry from a studio pundit “I have no idea what the ref saw there”, because we’ll all know instantly.

These new available technologies, when taken together would be revolutionary for football. We could be the first league in the world to be set up using AI cameras, and referees beaming simple stats direct to fans from on the pitch.

So rather than Scotland being behind the times like we are with goalline technology and VAR, we’d be pioneers of this new technology. Potentially, good news for Scottish football, referees and fans. All it needs is that crucial buy-in from the Scottish FA and referees. My appeal to them would be to embrace the potential, and consider the positives of enhancing interaction with fans.

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