UK forms new sports tech group to allow fans return

The UK Government has announced the formation of a working group that will explore high-tech solutions to allow more fans to return to stadiums.

The Sport Tech Innovation Group – announced in the wake of fans returning to a Premier League stadium for the first time in five months over the weekend at Brighton – will include sport, health and tech experts as well as the Premier League, England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and other sporting bodies.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the group, which will work with England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, has been formed to explore high-tech solutions that can get fans back into venues in greater numbers.

“That kind of tech could include tracking devices to measure social distancing between fans, and fluorescent disinfectants to reveal how often surfaces are touched. Or innovative tech to assist in safe travel, and reduce crowding as fans make their way to venues,” Dowden said.

“This isn’t just about sport. We desperately need people back in our theatres, in our cinemas, in our music venues. This group will feed into this crucial work too.”

The Premier League welcomed the formation of the group as it targets a return of fans to stadiums across England at the start of October.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said: “The Premier League is very pleased to be involved in the Sport Tech Innovation Group announced by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden.

“We know, through the success of delivering Project Restart last season, that Premier League clubs can provide safe environments and we are looking forward to welcoming back supporters to all our grounds as quickly as possible.”

Some 2,500 Brighton fans attended the club’s home friendly against Chelsea at the Amex Stadium on Saturday under tight restrictions imposed by the Government and football authorities as part of its pilot scheme to safely return supporters to stadiums.

The supporters, from the club’s loyalty programme, adhered to Government guidelines, such as using socially distanced seating, undergoing temperature checks and wearing masks when going into or around the stadium.

The event was deemed a success by Masters, who added: “Brighton & Hove Albion did a fantastic job at their test event for the return of supporters and it was great to see fans in a Premier League stadium for the first time since March.

“The success of having 2,500 supporters in the Amex was very encouraging and we are committed to having full stadia as soon as possible, with safety always our priority. We are working hard alongside our clubs, the Government and the safety authorities to achieve this.”

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber added: “We are delighted – it went as well as it possibly could have. Credit to our fans – they followed the guidelines, listened to requests from our stewards and, even at the end, when they stayed on to listen to the managers’ pitchside interviews on our stadium screens, they remained in their seats and observed social distancing.”

This weekend also saw around 700 fans attend a rugby match between Edinburgh and Glasgow at Murrayfield. Among those present was Scotland’s national clinical director, Jason Leitch.

Fans had to wear face coverings, stay in family groups at least two metres from other people and use hand sanitiser as they arrived.

Prof Leitch told Off the Ball on BBC Radio Scotland: “It was excellent. It went off without an obvious hitch. It felt completely safe and everyone did their jobs really, really well.

“We had a big debrief after it. We heard from the transport people, the hospitality people – everybody around the ground – because that’s what we were actually slightly more worried about than in the ground itself, and everything went really well.”

The Government last week announced around a dozen new pilot events following initial tests at the recent World Snooker Championship final at the Crucible and cricket at Edgbaston and the Oval. The list of events, to take place over the coming weeks, include a Premiership rugby fixture between Harlequins and Bath at Twickenham Stoop, some cricket T20 Blast group fixtures and horse racing at Doncaster, Warwick and Newmarket.

The events are taking place with a view to crowds returning to sporting fixtures at the start of October.