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'We want to promote confidence in fans as they return' - the Irish app leading the way in GAA post-Covid-19

ClubSpot will deliver digital ticketing for club matches as sport returns. Here, founder John Hyland maps its journey.

AS GAELIC GAMES — and sport, in general — returns across the length and breadth of the country, there’s plenty to think about.

Training, for one, is a very different experience to what it was pre-Covid-19. There’s no shortage of new rules and regulations to follow, and plenty of guidelines to adhere to before a ball is even kicked or a sliotar pucked.

Matches will bring a whole new dimension. Even more so when spectators are introduced.

photo-adrian-donohoe ClubSpot Founder John Hyland and Advisor Bernard Jackman alongside Cavan GAA members announcing the app's latest initiative which will see digital tickets rolled out for all club games in Cavan this year.

One Irish start-up is making life easier for GAA clubs far and wide through these unprecedented times.

ClubSpot is a Cavan-based club management app who have made waves through the sporting shutdown. In a time where many other businesses struggled, ClubSpot thrived. Challenges became opportunities, with digital ticketing one of its main focuses as GAA clubs gear up for the return of competitive action in mid-July.

The brainchild of John Hyland, he combined his business and sporting backgrounds and founded ClubSpot last year. After looking at Club Breifne — the Cavan GAA supporter’s club — in detail for a project during his Masters studies in sports management, the idea was born.

I saw the massive commercial power clubs have,” Hyland told The42 this week. “I thought if we could provide them with a platform that can help them generate and create value for their members and for their sponsors, and then also reduce the workload on the volunteers, that we would be onto a winner.”

After toying around with different approaches, he settled on the idea of a club management tool and created a product that would “help volunteer-run grassroots level clubs save time and make money,” with the gap in the market spotted as no one had taken advantage of the emotional connection between the club and the app user before.

ClubSpot would help clubs grow and move forward, honing in on communication, registration, fundraising and news.

Not just GAA clubs, though. It’s for any member-based organisation. They’re currently working with athletics, basketball, soccer and rugby clubs, while a scouts group from Kilkenny reached out last week. 

“I had always thought this idea was nearly coming a little bit too soon and people weren’t ready for it,” the Gowna man picks up, “but I got the feeling that the time was right in January 2019 to start opening up the business.”

Winning prestigious entrepreneurial prizes and securing funding helped along the way, and the dream soon became a reality. But with the product built and ready to be fully released, coronavirus arrived and scuppered ClubSpot’s plans.

“We had a few clubs signed up, and we had to make the decision with the business: do you park it and not take a chance and just see how things settle, or do you keep going and try and see if there’s an opportunity in Covid?

We just had this feeling that Covid is going to accelerate the need for digital products, especially in the sporting space. We said we’d drive on and we were actually able to sign up clubs in the first few weeks of Covid.

“We signed up 20 clubs nearly in just over a month. When I was able to sign up clubs, even in the middle of Covid with all the uncertainty around sport, I was able to prove the need for the product and prove it to potential investors.”

With former Ireland rugby international Bernard Jackman now on board as an investor and an advisor, the club platform is live and going from strength to strength. Hyland says the first club that used it in Cavan “sold more in their first week than they had sold in the entire 2019 using one of our competitor’s products” after 265 downloads in three weeks, with only 110 paid members.

Word travelled fast and things snowballed, with many more clubs — “nearly too many,” he laughs, “but it’s a good problem to have” — keen to come on board.

Source: ClubSpot/YouTube

One big attraction is the digital ticketing platform they launched last week. The plan was to link up with Tixserve — the provider who have the British Open, Twickenham and many other big stadiums and events across the world as customers — next year, but the Covid-19 crisis accelerated the process.

Contactless ticketing will be hugely attractive as sport returns with social distancing among spectators a key measure. So much so that after Hyland approached Cavan GAA, a deal was made “in less than hour.”

Using ClubSpot, tickets can been scanned safely at the gates of GAA pitches with the spectator and volunteers able to keep their distance.

Hyland explains the process: “If you wanted to enter a match, you would go on to the Cavan GAA app, you’d buy your ticket — which you can do in less than 30 seconds — the ticket is delivered to your phone, and then you just scan it on your phone.

“The great thing with this is you can do this anywhere in the county. Cavan could have 20 different championship fixtures and they can have volunteers at each ground, all they need is their mobile phone and that acts as a digital scanner.

You don’t need Wifi, you don’t need mobile coverage for this to work, which is a big plus because obviously in rural Cavan and some of these places, mobile coverage is going to be poor and Wifi is only a pipe dream.

“It’s also much faster than paper ticketing. We can put 350 people through a gate in an hour using these mobile tickets. You then have the need for less volunteers on the gates when you’re taking people in, which is another problem that county boards are having — the age profile of their volunteers is rising and the number of volunteers is declining, so they’re getting it harder to get people to work the turnstiles and gates.

“The other big thing was we could take away the handling of cash from turnstiles. So instead of people having to handle large volumes of cash, it’s all done automatically — we’re able to track that, so if spectator numbers need to be limited, you can do all of that using our app.”

Seats can be then easily numbered to allow for adequate space between supporters, and gates opened rather than turnstiles used to ensure social distancing guidelines are adhered to at all times.

There is plenty of worry and risk involved as sport returns, but ClubSpot and its digital ticketing process can certainly ease the stress, Hyland assures.

“We wanted to promote confidence in fans who want to return to sport,” he nods.

“Everybody’s been on lockdown and stuck at home for the last few months, there’s been very little to do entertainment-wise. We’re watching re-runs of old matches. When sport does come back, everyone wants to go.

“But at the same time, it has to be safe. There’s lots of older people who would love to go, but they’re told they should be cocooning. We now give them the option of a contactless entry to ease those worries.

The closest contact you have is two seconds where the volunteer is holding their phone above yours to scan your ticket. It all saves going to a man in the van or that and then through turnstiles where there’s close contact and tickets and cash are being exchanged over and back.”

One huge help through the journey to date has been Jackman. To have the influence of such a big name in Irish sport nearby is surely brilliant, and it’s something we touch on as the interview winds down: how that all came about.

bernard-jackman Advisor Bernard Jackman. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The former international did the same Masters degree as Hyland so the pair were introduced through ex-lecturers. They’ve had a trusty partnership ever since.

“Bernard can see the opportunities,” he smiles. “Even from the first day I met Bernard, when this was still just an idea in my head and a concept, he was able to pick up on the vision nearly straightaway and see where we could bring this.

I can always pick up the phone and just bounce ideas off him. It’s great to have someone like that.

“Bernard has had a very successful career, both playing and then in management obviously in France and in Wales so he has a big network built up across Europe within rugby, and he’s also well-known in GAA circles. He’s involved with Cork county teams the last two years.

“It was great to get him on board. Bernard knows how things are operating and the higher circles, where I wouldn’t have had exposure to before this. His knowledge and advice is great, he’s very commercially-focused and he has a good business head.”

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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