According to research conducted by Sport England and the Football Association, ‘small-sided football’ (including 4/5/6/7/ a side football, walking football and playing football with friends and family)’ is currently played at least once a month by around 14% of the English population. 10% play less regularly (or used to play), 6% don’t play at present but would consider it, with the remaining 70% not considering it at all.
The research found that a common theme is that people want it to be easier to find a venue to play at — almost 1 in 5 people would play more if it was easier to find a venue. On the opposite side of the fence venue providers are also keen to improve utilisation of their facilities, and to increase revenue.
Research by Playfinder (formerly My Local Pitch), an online service which allows venues to promote their availability, echoed this: where booking processes existed, they were often over-complicated and inaccessible, which was deterring people from playing. Many venues did not make their availability easy to see, or it was not online at all. And whilst some sessions were heavily over-subscribed, others struggled to promote their spare capacity.
Playfinder began with a problem faced by countless sports players in cities across the world. Founders Jamie Foale and Sandford London were trying to book a football pitch in London for their Sunday league team, but couldn’t get past the answer machines and unanswered emails. When the company launched in 2014, the core challenge for Playfinder was to help people to find an available slot at a convenient location, and to book it.
Jamie Foale, Cofounder of Playfinder, explains: “Over-complicated and inaccessible booking process experiences can put people off from playing. We wanted to get people to participate, to fill spare capacity, drive engagement for different audiences, and to make venues more accessible. If people have a better experience, it keeps them coming back. By using data we knew we could make these journeys easier.”
Creating a solution with data
Playfinder provides an easy to use website and mobile app that show sports venue availability in London, Manchester and Dublin. No longer simply focusing on football, it is a “one-stop shop for sports players looking to find, contact and book local sports pitches”, with venues ranging from cycling, to rowing, cricket, and beyond — the core being pitches and courts. They allow users to search by sport type and location and allows venues to directly input basic data about the venue itself, for example whether there are changing rooms, toilets, showers.
The key challenge for Playfinder in creating the site was collecting the data, they addressed this in two ways. For organisations already using in-house booking systems, Playfinder worked with their software providers in order to extract opportunity data and send bookings back. For those with older booking systems, or no system, Playfinder offered both a simple online enquiry system allowing customers to contact the venue for single or block bookings, and the ability for venues to manage availability via the platform, facilitating instant bookings and payment.
The lessons learnt by Playfinder have been varied, spanning technology factors such as the lack of data standards, to more human aspects including a lack of understanding of the importance and potential of data to improve services.
Jamie Foale explains: “Opening up data and bringing people up to date with technology can push bookings from 80% capacity to 90%, and save operators a lot of time. However, sometimes people don’t want to know how they can save time, if this involves perceived operational challenges such as changing systems.”
For some commercially focused organisations, Playfinder found that an increase in usage is not necessarily a priority; instead their challenge is ensuring the operations of their facilities are efficiently managed. Jamie’s also realised that a lot of time was being wasted by venues managing enquiries for unavailable slots: “Organisations aren’t very good at realising that demand can be spread, and not localised to individual venues. If you give people a good view of what is available, they’ll be more flexible about where they play.”
Impact on user behaviour
By gathering data from local authorities and venue providers, Playfinder has been able to build a user-friendly discovery portal and booking tool. And instant online bookings have made a significant impact of venue providers as a result of the improved user experience:
Rate of return: the number of users booking within the same month at the same venue has risen from 24% to 32% when moving from manual bookings to instant online bookings.
Users booking different sports: the number of users booking different sports at the same venue increased to 9% within a month, compared to 4% with manual bookings. The team found that this is usually football players then playing racket sports.
Users switching venue: users booking a new venues rose by an average of 41% within three months.
Getting people to a venue that they’re happy with and will return to is the ultimate goal, and to support this Playfinder created the ‘Outstanding London Sports Venue Award’. Honouring a London-based venue each month, this award is intended to recognise both excellent sports facilities as well as standards of customer service, and is judged by Playfinder users themselves.