African Start up

Want to ‘high-five’ Ronaldo? With this app, soon you’ll be able to

Story highlights

Nothing more thrilling than seeing your team lift the trophy at end of season

But are you still a fan if you can't get to the stadium?

Location, limited seating and insufficient disposable income can be barriers to going to games

Companies and brands working on bridging gap between teams and fans

CNN  — 

Sitting in his front room in Johannesburg, Neven Murugan – a die-hard Manchester United fan – was working on his computer with the game of his favorite team in the background.

Thousands of miles away from the Old Trafford football ground, he often rescheduled his weekends to make sure he was able to catch his club on TV, something he’d done since he was a child.

It was the closest he could get to seeing them live. As he looked up from his computer, he saw Paul Scholes passing the ball to Ryan Giggs, who immediately let it fly into the back of the net.

Following a muted celebration – jumping and air punches included – Murugan quickly realized how disconnected he was from the team he loved and its fellow supporters.

But he also wondered whether there was a way for far-flung fans to connect with each other during matches and share the support for their team during in real time.

Bringing the stadium to you

Murugan, a computer engineer who had helped set up the backbone infrastructure for the internet in South Africa, took to work and soon Fanmode, an “Internet of Things” startup, was born. The gesture-based platform allows sports fans to “wave,” “boo” and “cheer” using their phone or swipe directly on the app during live events time. This expression of emotion is aggregated through Fanmode’s “Vibeboard” where fans can chat to one another and interact through virtual high-fives and so on.

“We want to make the stadium the center of fan involvement,” says Murugan, who is eager to maximize on the private conversations many sports fans are currently having on platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.

Review: Fun but will people use it?

  • At a Fanmode event in London, I got the chance to demo the product along with connected wearables during the AFCON final. While the concept is somewhat gimmicky, I will admit it was rather enjoyable. I’d say the gesturing still needs to be more finely tuned. A tricky element on the tech side, the gesture for “booing” (placing both hands on your head in exasperation) didn’t quite make it to back to the platform. Is the future of fan experience connected through sentiment analysis? Perhaps, but companies like Fanmode still have a way to go to get users on the platform and build enough partnerships with stadium operators if they want to make it truly global.

    “The stadium is a ‘thing.’ Your lounge is a ‘thing.’ The pub is a ‘thing’ and we allow real-time connection between these ‘things,’” says the 40-year-old founder, who left a 12-year career in the telecoms industry to launch Fanmode in 2011 with business partner Christian Jochnick.

    Still in a beta phase, and with around 2,000 global users from Tokyo to San Francisco, the team have now set up shop in London and are steadily building strong relationships with Premier League clubs and stadium operators, including Wembley.

    Social trend

    So far, the most popular arena for passionate fans who aren’t lucky enough to make it to the stadium has been social media like Twitter and Facebook. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest Twitter “moments” of last year was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where an incredible 672 million tweets were sent during the month-long soccer competition.

    This massive global interest has been largely brought about by the astronomical TV investments in live coverage of sport events. This has helped create big armies of hungry-for-action fans who might be eager to show their die-hard dedication but are often restricted by expensive tickets, limited stadium seats and geographic barriers.

    Yet, finding solutions to these problems could be the golden ticket for clubs, brands and businesses, experts say. And considering how lucrative the international sports market is, it comes as no surprise that many brands and companies are attempting to bridge the divide for fans through data mining and technology.

    “Integration of technology in the fan experience is becoming increasingly important,” says Paul Smith, founder and CEO of Repucom, a leading sports strategy agency.

    “From data mapping and social media content to wearables, enabling fans to experience content usually reserved for those in the stadium is a growing trend we are certainly seeing more of.”

    Showing off your sporting identity

    Fanmode is one of those companies trying to benefit from that trend – but is not the only one.

    Most sports leagues have their own official apps to bring the experience to far flung fans, like NBA’s “Game Time” platform and baseball’s At Bat app.

    Elsewhere, Score! with friends is a push notification messaging app that seeks to bypass private groups on Whatsapp by offering a mobile messaging platform specifically for sports smack talk. The app uses your personal contacts book so you can show your team pride by sending sounds or personal chants straight to your friends’ phones.

    Then there’s Fancred, a social network designed to showcase your sports fan identity in all its flag bearing glory, while Fanatic allows you to follow your favorite teams no matter where you are in the world.

    “Of course, nothing will rival experiencing the live action in the stadium,” says Smith, “but as fan bases continue to grow internationally, innovative ways of delivering engaging content will certainly allow the global commerciality of football clubs to grow with them.”

    Digitizing sport

    Murugan says Fanmode has developed smartphone apps for wearable devices like watches that are able to pick up fan language and represent it in the stadium. The plan is to partner with clubs and feed the fan sentiment “Vibeboards” directly into the grounds, where fellow supporters can see it on big screens. Players will also be able to feel the love as it will appear on monitors in team areas and in the tunnels.

    For the South African entrepreneur, the ultimate dream is to install tablets and eventually devices with haptic technology capabilities in player dressing rooms so that as they come in at half-time or final whistle, they can interact with fans immediately through the app.

    “Fans would ‘high five’ their favorite player during the game. (At the end of the game) he would go to the high-five panel after and see that he received 10 million high-fives through Fanmode. The player could then ‘high-five’ everyone back and they will receive it in real-time,” says Murugan.

    It’s definitely ambitious – but whether star footballers would be up for “high-fiving” you, it still remains to be seen.