Since I was a kid, I’ve always been intrigued by sports. The tension, the competitiveness, the unreal happiness of winning and even the huge disappointment of losing are feelings that cannot be matched. As I wasn’t touched by a magic wand, my sporting career remained pretty recreational.
Luckily, you can experience all those feelings as a fan as well. Just think back to the images of cheering crowds across Belgium supporting our Belgian Red Devils at the World Cup. Or in the US, the euphoric fans at an American Football game even provoked vibrations on a seismographic machine by triggering a (very small) earthquake when their team won in the last minute.
I just love the way sports can stir up those emotions. That’s one of the reasons why, over the past decade, I’ve taken an ever-greater interest in the sporting industry – and in football* in particular.
Alongside my general passion for sports, I was curious to take a look at this fascinating industry from a more professional point of view. More specifically, I was eager to know how a rather ‘traditional’ football industry has embraced new technologies as, over the past decade, data, AI and technology waves have been rapidly innovating and changing industries all across the world.
Last December, I got the opportunity to virtually attend the Web Summit, which hosted many speakers active in the sports industry: From Ivan Gazidis (CEO - AC Milan) and Christophe Dubi (Director of the Olympic Games) to José Mourinho (Coach - Tottenham Hotspur). Different topics were discussed, such as ‘How to survive without having any fans in the stadium’, ‘Engaging your audience as a sport club’ and ‘Data & new technologies in football clubs’. The latter was the one that caught my eye the most. From what I had read and heard before the Web Summit, the football industry has been rather reluctant to embrace technological innovations in the past, a claim backed up by research as well:
“Despite the advantages of sport technology, some sport organizations are reluctant to adopt technology because of a wish to continue the status quo”
However, when football clubs started explaining their technological innovations over the past couple of years, it emerged that they are catching up (or trying to at least) and are experiencing a shift in mindset. On top of that, the current crisis even accelerated this. Clubs were forced to re-think their entire business model without the revenue of fans at their games. Sevilla, a Spanish Football Club, is one worthy example, as they stopped their major investment plans, except for the digitalization and the integration of Artificial Intelligence & Big Data.
As in any industry, there are big differences between clubs and even countries. But if the integration of data is done correctly, it can give a club a (huge) competitive advantage and save them a lot of (wasted) time and money in the long term. The 3 cases underneath support that claim.
Winning games with data
Individual and collective talent is -without any doubt- an important factor to win games. But when you start to mix this talent with external data, your chances of winning will increase even further. One of the earliest examples can be found in the book ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’. It tells the story of the Oakland Athletics Baseball Team that used data and sport analytics to win 20 consecutive games against richer and more talented teams. Some additional examples can be found in the football industry as well:
- As explained above, the football industry was a bit of a latecomer in integrating data analysis techniques. Nonetheless, this might be one of the reasons why Germany won the World Cup in 2014. During the World Cup, Germany’s national football team collaborated with SAP to create a database of their own and opponents’ players, stacked with data about individual and collective performances. By leveraging this data, they could perfectly (and very meticulously) prepare the strategy for each game and that helped them to win the biggest trophy in football.
- Data is being analyzed in real-time, even during games. At half-time, the data analysts bring their heatmap and analysis (e.g.: average position of players, most touches on the field, tactical patterns, etc.) of the first half and show their and the opponents’ strengths and vulnerabilities, so the coach can make immediate tactical changes and try to win the game.
- When a free-kick is awarded, more and more players try to shoot underneath the jumping wall, instead of over the wall. That is the reason why one of the opposing players is often lying down on the pitch to prevent that. It’s not a player’s stroke of genius to take a free-kick like that, this data (e.g. length of players in the wall, jumping power, free-kicks scored against this wall, etc.) is provided by data analysts.
Changing recruitment methods
The way clubs are selecting and recruiting new players has changed drastically over the past years. From “I’ve seen a good guy in country X, let’s watch him play a couple of times and decide whether or not to buy him” to a gigantic database (e.g.: Wyscout) of all players around the globe, individually ranked on an enormous number of variables (e.g. air-duels won, interceptions, average kms/game, shots on goal, etc.). Not only are physical variables taken into account; their mental strength is also an important variable to know upfront. In Belgium, a data-driven scouting policy is for example implemented by Club Brugge & KRC Genk, who are savoring the successes of this.
With all this info, clubs can filter on the variables that are important for them and select their top X targets. Afterwards, they will conduct numerous video analyses of those targets, before even going to their games. A lot of time and money can be saved, as scouting experts only need to focus on the top targets. It sounds ‘obvious’ to have a scouting policy based on data, but there are still clubs in Belgium and around the world that are just relying on the gut-feeling of their scouting team and are wasting a lot of money on ‘bad’ transfers.
Injury prevention through data and technology
Nowadays, any top club is consistently monitoring their players, both on- and off the pitch. A GPS-tracking vest is one of the technological delights that players are wearing to track their workload during training or games. Variables that are frequently used to quantify their workload are ‘intensity’, ‘distance covered (jog, run, sprint)’, ‘accelerations’ and ‘heart rate variables’. A huge advantage of GPS tracking is that it predicts the injury risk for any player individually. Data analysts monitor all the information to objectively measure when a player needs a complete rest, a low-intensity training scheme to prevent a potential injury of an overstretched muscle or how to make an injury-sensitive player more resilient during confrontations. Especially in a season where the matches are played in quick succession, due to COVID-19, this is a big added-value. This method allows clubs to create personalized training sessions for their players, based on their own needs, which will lead to a better collective result.
But the final whistle hasn't blown yet...
As explained in the section above, data is already present in the football industry, and more and more clubs are embracing it. Yet, one should ‘never waste a good crisis’. On top of all the improvements already implemented over the past years, COVID-19 and the continuous evolution of new technologies will offer additional opportunities for football clubs to grow and create more value in the future:
- In contrast to other industries, the football industry is operating in a high content-consuming market. (Potential) fans actively search for content about their favorite team, as they feel a strong emotional connection to the ‘brand’. This gives football clubs the opportunity to gather and use high-quality data (more) easily if they set up a good data structure. Linked to that, a big challenge for football clubs is to enlarge their fanbase. The creation of high-quality content, fueled by a proper lead generation strategy, won’t only be key to connect, but also to attract and monetize new fans around the world.
- Due to the crisis, football clubs will have to digitize their services (e.g. digital ticket sales, digital subscription renewals, etc.). This is a great opportunity for (smaller) clubs to start collecting and gathering data from their fans. By doing this, clubs can offer their fans a personalized experience, use that to further boost (sponsored) content and to up- and cross-sell their current products.
- Over the past year, fans were not able to attend the games physically. This further emphasized the importance of a connection between the team and the fanbase. Some clubs started experimenting with big screens around the pitch, on which fans were being livestreamed. However, technologies such as AR and VR could offer even more opportunities to let fans enjoy the live atmosphere from their home. Nowadays, thanks to VR-glasses, it is even possible to have a front-row seat in the stadium during the game, while you’re comfortably seated on your own couch at home. This opens up entirely new business opportunities, as clubs are able to reach fans who cannot come to the stadium or live in a different country.
- Before COVID-19, relationships with fans were mostly maintained offline or via the ‘classic’ social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.). Today, clubs will need to look at new partnerships and new channels like TikTok, Twitch & E-sports to stay relevant to them and reach new audiences. Although the potential is huge, not all football clubs are yet experimenting with this.
- Real-time data and a connected stadium (e.g. due to ‘Internet of Things’) can be a great help to the staff and the fans. The benefits of having a heatmap in the stadium in case of an evacuation or possible riots are priceless. At the same time, fans can exploit the same information to know where the shortest waiting line is to get a snack or go to the toilet, so they don’t need to miss that all important goal as they’re standing there in a queue.
These are just some opportunities. When data and new technologies are used correctly, the potential is enormous and will create value for the club, the players and the fans. But even data needs a good manager. It must be entrusted to the professionals; otherwise it will just remain a static resource and insights will remain undetected and unexploited.
However, if you ask me if I believe we’re heading towards an era where football games can solely be won by data and technology, my answer would be a definite “No!”. Players’ talent, their passion and the power of thousands of screaming fans will always influence the game. There are too many emotions involved. But if data is managed correctly, there is no doubt that it will assist any club to score on many fronts.
Data can help any business to reach new horizons. Are you eager to know more about how data can help your company? Check out this page:
*Just to be clear: The term ‘football’ refers to ‘voetbal’ (in Dutch) or ‘soccer’, not to American Football.
Thanks for Davy Vanhaen, Strategic Partnership Manager at KRC Genk, who gave valuable input by sharing his experience in the football industry.
References: BBC, Big Data in the Decision-Making Processes of Football Teams, Deloitte, Durf! – Bart Verhaege, Exasol, GPS and Injury Prevention in Professional Soccer, How emerging technologies are reframing sport: Implications for Sport Management, Intel, Izenda, Microsoft, MLS Soccer, N3xt Sports, (Selection of) Keynotes Web Summit: José Mourinho, Ivan Gazidis, José Maria Cruz, Christophe Dubi, Soccerment, Sports Analytics & Data Science, Techogym, The Culture Division and Wyscout.