Kathmandu, Feb 28: It’s enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
A sea of yellow and gold stretches as far as the eye can see.
The streets of Rome are lined with adoring football fans as the team bus winds its way towards the the Stadio Olimpico for Roma’s biggest match of the season against bitter rivals Juventus with the prize of the Italian championship hanging in the balance.
Inside the stadium the famous Curva Sud is alive with passion. As kick-off draws the cacophony of noise grows ever louder
“I’ve been to many, many sporting events across the world,” says Sean Foley, vice president of sport and media at the Raptor Group — which is headed up by Roma’s American owner James Pallotta.
“There’s nothing I’ve experienced that’s like Roma.”
Except you’re not sat in the stands. You’re in your living room. You’re not under night sky in the “Eternal City,” you’re glaring into an iPad in Tokyo. Or Buenos Aires. Or New York City.
In partnership with Google, Roma is attempting to transport the match-day experience across the globe, using the latest technology and the power of social media to attract new fans from every corner of the world.
“In terms of exporting this beautiful brand, the passion of the fans and all that, it’s not just a world where there’s traditional media anymore,” adds Foley,
Eager to explore new horizons, Pallotta is a man as likely to be spotted in California’s tech heartlands as he is dealing with football’s power brokers.
And, with his blessing, it’s as if Foley has been given free reign to explore football’s final frontier.
“We know we’re not going to win over many more fans in Italy,” says Foley. WIf you’re a Juventus fan or an AC Milan fan, that’s who you are, that’s what you’re born into.”
So back on the sofa, those iPad fans will watch a YouTube livestream following the Roma team bus as it journeys to the stadium, with drones flying above the crowd to give an altogether different perspective to viewers watching the big game.
The innovations don’t end there.
Fans will be able to view “shoeselfies,” 360-degree photographs of the players’ boots which will be posted prior to the 2045 CET kick off time.
Roma’s Google Plus page will also display a “photosphere,” an interactive panoramic image which allows users to further explore game night in the Italian capital. A similar project was recently conducted with French team Paris Saint-Germain.
The Raptor Group’s involvements in sport, technology and social media, as Foley explains, means Roma is uniquely positioned to exploit new technologies.
The private investment company has interests in the Boston Celtics, Air BnB and Twitter, among others.
As Foley puts it: “I don’t think there’s many European football club owners that go to Silicon Valley on a regular basis. But Mr Pallotta does.”
It’s not the first time Roma and Google have joined forces.
In May 2014, Rudi Garcia donned Google Glass for the team’s friendly against Orlando while the club’s iconic captain Francesco Totti has taken part in a fan chat in a Google hangout.
But what’s in for tech giant Google?
“When people tell you there are 3.5 billion football fans in the world, as a way to engage people on our platforms, it’s certainly something for us to look at,” says Max Goldstein, sports partnerships manager for Google. “It’s definitely an area we’re taking a close look at.”
No wonder Google want to wiggle their way into the hearts and minds of the football fan.
A grand total of 672 million tweets were sent relating to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, while the hosts 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the semifinals saw a record 35 million tweets posted.
Like Google, Twitter wants to put itself inside the stadium.
Sunday’s English League Cup final between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur will see Wembley’s iconic arch turn blue or white depending on which team’s hashtag proves most popular.
“If you look across all social media platforms, there’s a huge amount of interest in football,” says Goldstein. “People are going online to check football scores, follow their favorite players, follow their favorite clubs.”
By bringing new tools to the table — “bringing people closer to the game through technology,” as Goldstein puts it — Google is intent on becoming an integral part of the football landscape.
“If you told any of us 10 years ago that any of this technology would exist, I think all of us would take pause,” he responds when asked what the future could look like for Google and football.
“I’m 29 and we were still writing letters to our favorite players when we were growing up. Now people are sitting in their living rooms and talking to them directly.”
It’s a far cry from how football looked in the 1970s, the era that Paul Tomkins, growing up in England, was first entranced by a dominant Liverpool team.
Although not from the city, Tomkins fell in love with the club in a way similar to how Roma hopes overseas fans will fall for the “Giallorossi” (the yellow-reds.)
Tomkins has been involved with football and Liverpool as a fan, season ticket holder, journalist and author and has seen social media change how rival supporters interact with each other.
And not necessarily for the better.
Rather than physically clashing on the streets, he suggests fans now trade 140-character blows.
“It’s about being totally neurotic about your team’s result and then being totally neurotic about what everybody else is doing,” he said.
“You see a lot of fans tweeting about their rival’s demise and the whole schadenfreude thing. It’s more about other people’s misfortune.”
With football clubs clamoring to maximize their social media presence and thus increase their corporate appeal, it’s perhaps no surprise to see the odd own goal.
Dunkin’ Donuts is one of Liverpool’s official sponsors and it recently incurred the wrath of the Twitter masses when it altered the club crest as part of a PR campaign.
It replaced the phrase “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the two flames which feature on the badge — both designed to honor the 96 Liverpool fans who died at the infamous Hillsborough Stadium Disaster in 1989 — with the words “America Runs on Dunkin'” and two coffee cups.
It has since apologized for the incident, which Tomkins suggests highlights the dangers of involving the glitzy world of PR and advertising with clubs that often have strong links to local communities with deep political convictions.
“When you look at how clubs have organically grown over the years and now they’re kind of touting for new fans, you have unfortunate things,” said Tomkins, referring to the Dunkin’ Donuts gaffe.
“Replacing the Hillsborough flames with a couple of plastic cups, they don’t know what that means. That’s part of the failing of the new social media thing, where not everybody knows what things stand for.”
Tomkins also doubts whether increasing a club’s social media popularity necessarily translate into creating true football fans.
“I just don’t know how much of the true club can come across on social media,” he says. “Everything on social media has to be bland and inoffensive.”
Tomkins readily accepts that, as a traditional fan brought up in a bygone age, he’s not necessarily the target audience for the latest technological innovations.
But he doubts whether or not “shoeselfies” and drones can inspire true passion in the heart of an overseas follower.
“It’s a whole new style of fan that’s coming through because of the technology, because of the access. I don’t know whether social media is part of gaining true fans or just gaining ‘likes’ on Facebook. My sense is that it’s all pretty dull.”
Google and Roma will be hoping that the football fans of tomorrow disagree. After all, 3.5 billion people is a lot of eyeballs.