The France 98 football World Cup, the biggest sporting event inecomes a cash cow. As the three lions line the pockets of the IT industry, we look at the business benefits of France 98. history, is well underway. Thanks to media saturation - comment, insider views, flashy graphics - we now know whether a Gazza-less England and a Scotland without the safe but restless hands of Andy Goram are likely to pose any real threat to the Brazilian masters, most of whom were perfecting the bicycle-kick before they could mouth the word Mama. And then there are the mighty Germans, who conduct their matches with the forethought and discipline of a military campaign.
We'll also know if the special relationship between football and information technology, which has been blooming in recent years, is likely to continue into the immediate future.
The rise of the networked world and the transformation of our Beautiful Game into a conventional business proposition and global phenomenon has stirred the imagination of IT marketeers at all levels. At the same time, football has recognised the need to communicate itself more effectively and efficiently to an ever-increasing potential audience. So who better than the IT industry to convey its message, especially considering the huge marketing funds IT companies are prepared to invest in their bid to share a little of the World Cup glory?
And this is not purely a case of glory by association. For some, at least, a lot more is at stake, as IBM found out to its horror during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The setup of an electronic infrastructure for a major sporting event becomes more than just a convenient way of swapping services for a benign marketing opportunity when the system is dogged by embarrassing public failures - it's a showcase and if things go wrong, people notice.
There is no substitute for the thrill of the live spectacle. But if you're not one of the privileged few going to France this month, the three official providers of the IT infrastructure at France 98 - Hewlett Packard, EDS and Sybase - promise to deliver the kind of high-quality, non-stop service that Shearer and Owen will be demanding from the England midfield.
The statistics involved in this operation would baffle even the likes of John Motson - two and a half million stadium spectators, in addition to a worldwide audience of 37 billion, following 64 matches over 33 days.
Hewlett Packard is providing the hardware, Sybase the design tools and database software and EDS has written the applications. Together with France Telecom, they have built a network comprising 2,500 workstations, PCs and laptops, 100 servers, 400 hubs and routers and 15,000 telephone lines, linked via the internet to the rest of the world.
The main objective is a real-time online information system for fanatics the world over, recording every conceivable event in glorious technicolour.
Every goal, every save, every tackle, every foul, every time Seaman strokes his trademark moustache and every tear that wells in every eye of every losing player will be recorded and made available through Content Engine, which runs on a cluster of Unix-based HP 9000 Enterprise servers. The organisers anticipate 150 million hits a day - a world record in itself.
It doesn't stop there, either. This unlikely team is also handling the electronic ticketing process, security, dope-testing, an online merchandise shop and a media-specific intranet for the army of journalists attending.
HP even designed the national stadium using the latest CAD technology.
Conservative estimates of the setup cost for this non-stop, mission-critical, enterprise-scale operation hover at about $40 million. But while none of the parties involved is prepared to discuss figures, it appears the computer companies will not receive a penny in hard currency for their time and resources.
According to Wynn Willis, EDS director of marketing for France 98, payment will be made in kind. He is convinced EDS' contribution will be a worthwhile investment. 'The marketing value to EDS is greater than the services we are providing,' he claims.
IBM sees things differently. Despite problems relaying scores at the Atlanta Olympics, Big Blue was originally offered the France 98 contract.
One senior IBM employee said the contract had been rejected because football, unlike athletics, for example, is not complex enough to show off the vendor's full range of technological capabilities. Not the most convincing argument, given the logistical labyrinth already discussed.
Eli Primrose-Smith, IBM vice president of worldwide sports sponsorship, offers a more realistic explanation: 'The benefits package (in terms of marketing exposure) was valued at between $10 million and $15 million at the time. The cost to us of delivering the desired IT package was estimated to be $25 million. It was a bad business deal for us.'
But EDS claims you cannot measure the value of being part of an event like the World Cup.
Martin Trees, EDS European marketing strategy director, said EDS' involvement in France 98 is not only aimed at attracting additional customers. In a business which is increasingly suffering from a lack of qualified personnel, he hopes that 'sexy and exciting' soccer will also generate interest among potential future employees.
'There is no way to measure that appeal,' says Trees. If the sight of David Beckham in a dress is the kind of thing that turns you on, then maybe a job with a systems integrator is just what you've been missing.
It's a funny old game, and one which will reveal its corporate winners only when the final kick has produced a winner on the pitch.
Back on the home front, the IT community has also embraced the World Cup, in an attempt to marry a national obsession with the everyday business of making money. But again, not everyone can be a winner.
According to the France 98 official tour operators, in a controversial allocation system which saw 2.4 million of the 2.5 million tickets go to the host nation, techies are more fortunate than most. If you work in the IT industry, you are twice as likely to get your hands on a corporate ticket as other professionals.
Computer firms see the World Cup as a rare opportunity, not only to improve their public image but also to reward staff and create incentives for resellers and other business partners.
Digital has just announced the winners of more than 100 World Cup tickets and related prizes in its Qualifier 98 incentive programme for accredited resellers and distributors. The winners of a similar promotion put together by David Petts, Compaq director of commercial business, will be announced on 19 June. Petts says: 'The idea was to create a reseller-specific promotion riding on the back of a topic which has become incredibly popular at the moment.'
For every PC sold between mid-April and 12 June, Compaq resellers will get one entry into the prize draw. The vendor is giving away four tickets for the finals, four for the semis and 25 for the quarter finals. Every reseller will be restricted to one ticket, so smaller channel partners still have a good chance of winning.
When asked whether Petts would be attending any of the matches, he couldn't hide the disappointment in his voice: 'My wife is expecting our third child so I won't be going along.' But as any marketeer would try to point out, he already has two kids and the World Cup 98 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Cambridge Blues, a corporate events company based in Reading, has organised World Cup 'jollies' for a host of channel players including 3Com, Computacenter, Cisco, Ilion and Computer 2000. An employee explained that, strictly speaking, these companies cannot use their tickets as competition prizes or incentives for business partners. 'We are issued with the names and addresses of clients who are attending. Each ticket carries these details and they are checked upon entry to the stadium.'
Soccer's governing body, Fifa, has confirmed this is the case. A representative said: 'Tickets will have a name on them and identification checks will be carried out at the stadium. If the name on the ticket does not match the name on the passport or the driving licence, the ticket-holder will not be allowed access.'
But of course, anyone who really believes that this rule can be practically upheld is playing Fantasy Football. An old friend who makes his living from touting tickets for major events put things in perspective: 'Up to a third of the people going to the World Cup will be using a ticket with someone else's name on it. Can you really see the French authorities turning them all away?' Let's hope not.
But not all in the IT industry see the World Cup as a potential money spinner.
Mike Norris, MD of Computacenter, is an astute soccer strategist (he believes that sending Gazza home will prove disastrous for the national squad) as well as an accomplished businessman. He is also concerned that World Cup fever could have an adverse effect on sales figures.
'The World Cup could be bad for business. People are going to be spending their time following the matches rather than buying PCs,' he says.
And it's not just the customers who are going to be affected by the football phenomenon. Some businesses are worried that sales staff, with a wealth of soccer-related sites to choose from, are going to be too busy following the online coverage, to the neglect of their commercial game. It has even been suggested by some killjoys that serious sales managers should ban staff from using certain Websites during office hours.
The Financial Times has recognised this concern and responded by offering online World Cup coverage which is cunningly disguised as a business resource. The site, www.ft.com, has an exclusive advertising deal with official World Cup sponsor Hewlett Packard. It focuses on the business issues relating to the World Cup but surreptitiously includes a Java applet that delivers ball-by-ball commentary.
Robert Horler, new media sales manager at the Financial Times, says he is banking on 'legitimate usage' by businesses which might not be so happy about employees logging on to 'less serious' soccer sites.
And Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, not renowned for his love of football, would have been appalled had he heard a senior employee of one of the largest Microsoft UK dealers during last month's antitrust debacle. Asked about the potential impact of a delay on the release of Windows 98, the usually aggressive marketeer said: 'To be honest, I'd be quite happy if it is delayed, as the inevitable customer demand would mean I have less time to devote to the World Cup.'
Finally, the case of Roy Groom, managing director of Hayes Network Systems in Warwickshire, demonstrates that when the World Cup is involved, even seemingly harmless incentive schemes can produce losers as well as winners in the competitive game of IT sales.
Groom is an avid Coventry City fan and season ticket holder. The Xerox Channels Group has awarded him an all expenses paid trip to the World Cup, including six nights for two at a top Paris hotel and a pair of tickets to both the semis and the final.
Groom will not be taking his wife. Instead, his football-mad son will be accompanying him. Groom took a leaf out of Xerox's book, persuading Mrs Groom to stay at home with a gift of a new tumble dryer.
Groom made no secret of the fact that if Xerox was not his vendor of choice prior to the promotion, even the slimmest chance of a ticket to the finals had changed all that. He admits: 'The scheme really has provided an extra incentive for us to recommend Xerox products above those of other manufacturers.'
A great result for Xerox, but I doubt competing vendors are happy about the fact that an independent position is so easily marginalised. Such is the power of football to affect the guiding principles upon which our computer industry is built.
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