Florence (10) with the new headset
In December 2018, a clip of a Liverpool fan at Anfield celebrating a goal during a Champions League match went viral. Such an event isn’t unusual in itself given fans love to take videos on their smartphones to share on social media.
What made the video different was that the fan concerned was partially sighted and was unable to see who scored. Yet the joy in Mike Kearney’s voice was obvious as his cousin leaned in to tell him it was Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah who had put Liverpool 1-0 up.
"I'm like every other [soccer] fan - it doesn't matter if I can't see clearly, I still celebrate," Kearney told BBC Sport. "I like just being involved in the atmosphere and hearing what my cousin thinks - and anyone else, whether it's five rows back and a pleasant comment or not.”
Improving accessibility to soccer
The video was a powerful reminder of the importance of atmosphere and why millions of people go to watch soccer every week even though they could probably watch the match on TV. These days, it's possible to watch virtually every major match from the comfort of your home but soccer's relationship with the media wasn't always so cozy.
In the early years of broadcasting, there were concerns that if games were available on TV, then fans wouldn’t show up and pay their money to get in the stadium. It wasn’t until the 1980s that European leagues started to let cameras in for regular live coverage.
The evidence suggests that clubs and authorities needn’t have worried.
Advances such as smartphone applications, 4K Ultra-High Definition and Virtual Reality (VR) have all bring viewers as close to the action as possible but there is an understanding that nothing will ever replace it. The sights, sounds, and sociability of being at a match are impossible to replicate.
It’s why blind and partially sighted people are just as passionate about attending matches as anyone else. There are 5.1 million visually impaired people in the U.K., of which 43% identify as soccer fans.
Many clubs now provide audio-descriptive commentary at stadiums for partially sighted fans, while the UEFA-funded Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE) was founded in 2009 to offer support for disabled supporters. Supporters like Mike Kearney know that the services are available if they want but prefer to immerse themselves in the atmosphere.
Newcastle midfielder Allan Saint-Maximin shoots and scores during the Premier League match between Southampton and Newcastle United at St Mary's Stadium, Southampton on Saturday 7th March 2020. (Photo by Jon Bromley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES
This drive for accessibility is why Virgin Media and Premier League PINC side Southampton are giving two young supporters technology that will allow them to see their favorite team like never before.
Saints fans Joshua, aged 14, and Florence, 10, both have a condition known as ‘tunnel vision’ which means they are able to see in a straight line but suffer from a loss of peripheral vision. This creates a ‘tunnel-like’ field of sight that makes soccer a challenge because they can only see certain parts of the pitch. Even watching on TV is difficult.
Both young fans were chosen to receive a headset from a Californian-based IrisVision whose technology promises to improve the vision for people with more than 30 sight conditions. The headset works by recording video in the field of vision, magnifying the image and replaying it back to the user in a more visible format. Obviously, the benefits extend far beyond watching sports, helping people with activities such as reading and everyday tasks around the house.
IrisVision has partnered with Samsung on the project, has the support of medical authorities in the U.S., and thousands of customers worldwide. However, the technology remains in its infancy and remains prohibitively expensive for many people that might benefit. The form factor might also be unsuitable for some user groups.
Inevitably, as development continues, there will be a wider variety of products for different use cases and costs will come down as economies of scale kick in. But until then, it remains out of reach for some.
As part of its commercial arrangement with Southampton, Virgin Media has given the headsets to Joshua and Florence free of charge. Fitting took place with the help of VisionAid at the club’s St Mary’s Stadium, during which both were able to meet some of the players and have a kickabout on the pitch.
“It was incredible meeting the players and to be given these glasses which will mean I can now watch the Saints play in a way I’ve never experienced before,” said Joshua. “It will be much better for when I’m sitting in the stands.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw the players for the first time with my new glasses on,” added Florence, who is a member of the Saints Foundation Para Football Academy.
There were plans for Joshua and Florence to show off the headsets as mascots and ball carrier before the match against Manchester City on April 11, a game which would also have seen Virgin Media donate its sleeve sponsorship to disability charity Scope.
However, it is unclear when that fixture will take place due to the suspension of the league during the coronavirus outbreak. Joshua and Florence will have to wait a bit longer for that experience but the headsets will help them with education, entertainment and communication during lockdown.
"We're hopeful that this technology will be life-changing for both Joshua and Florence, helping them to not only watch television and assist with their learning during this difficult period but also to watch live [soccer] when the Premier League resumes,” said Virgin Media chief operating officer Jeff Dodds.
“We couldn’t have found two more worthy recipients of this technology and we can’t wait to see them walk out with the Saints players as mascot and match ball carrier once the Premier League season is back underway.”
The story serves as a reminder that although technology might never replace the matchday experience it can certainly enhance it. Soccer might be a huge industry, and a multi-billion dollar one at that, but the importance of the game and the feelings it can evoke show that it is more than just a business for most people.