The Irish Times’ Ken Early wrote a provocative article this past week on the strategy behind Manchester United’s hiring of former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.
Early writes that, back in the good old days, United’s first responsibility as a business was to put asses in the seats. That meant putting out a winning team that played bright, attractive football and won trophies. The kind of stuff that most of us innocents believe the sport is still about.
However, that all changed with the advent of the satellite/digital age. Here’s Early:
The year 2016 is projected to be the first in which more than 50 per cent of United’s income derives from commercial sources – sponsorship deals, merchandising and the new growth area of “mobile and content”.
This is a significant tipping point. For the first time, United’s income is not primarily derived from their own business activity, but from their usefulness as an advertising platform for other businesses.
Manchester United started as a football club that made most of its money by selling football matches to a paying audience. That is now a secondary part of the business. United’s most important customers are no longer the audiences that pay to watch the football, they are the corporate partners who pay to be associated with the brand. And the most valuable thing that United sells – the company’s primary product – is no longer the football. It is the audience itself.
The idea here is that United make more money from “the spectacle of it all” than they do from actually winning at the football. This is why, for example, it pays for United to shell out exorbitant transfer fees for various players who either made a name for themselves at a major international football tournament, or who may be slightly or even well past their ‘best by’ date.
Under this economic model, “views” and “brand enhancement” matter far more than ticket sales, and “ratings” count more than silverware. With this in mind, hiring a firebrand manager like Mourinho rather than someone a little less enamoured with controversy makes sense.
I am a tad less cynical than Early on United’s intentions with Mourinho. For example, the endless behind-the-scenes imbroglio at Real Madrid—a club that certainly seems to prize spectacle over substance—suggests the club’s fans may be more concerned with the number of points they earn in the table than how much interpersonal drama the team can pack in per square metre of pitch. But Early has a point, and I also think it’s important for anyone who is interested in football analytics.
For instance, this past week saw the New England Patriots owners spin off of the Kraft Analytics Group (KAGR) as a startup company. Kraft Group, which owns the Patriots and the New England Revolution, appointed Jessica Gelman CEO. She, incidentally, co-founded of the annual Sloan MIT Sports Analytics Conference.
KAGR’s mission however isn’t what you might think. According to the article, they’re a “…cloud-based technology focused on data management, analytics, data visualization and strategic marketing.” The company’s mission is to study and predict “fan behaviour,” with, as ever, the purpose of selling them more stuff.
This is the kind of thing a lot of industry leaders believe is the real sports analytics. To that end, the appointed of SSAC co-founder Gelman makes a lot of sense; the conference has appears to have included more and more fan/ratings focused analytics each year. I talked about this trend in FOR’s inaugural post a few months ago:
Part of the problem is the panel formats haven’t changed much over the last ten years. SSAC is also a little bloated….my overall takeaway is that the event is now large enough that it is probably worth splitting into two separate conferences—one on the marketing/ticketing/merch sale side, and the other on front office/media/sports specific side.
While I advocated for their separation at Sloan, the reality is that “audience-minded” commercial-driven analytics like those that will be purportedly sold by KAGR are likely to bleed more and more into analytics strictly on the so-called “sporting” side.
That means certain transfer or managerial targets will be evaluated for their potential ‘brand impact’ in addition to their impact on the football pitch. That means teams will aggressively pursue a certain kind of aesthetic which resonates more “in the ratings.”
In fact, if you’re a club analyst, your very presence at a club may itself be used as commercial fodder. Your own hiring as a club analyst may be touted as a way to push the club’s brand as a “true innovator.” There are suspicions that this was the motivating factor for a few high profile North American leagues like the NHL.
As an earnest analyst only interested in nothing more than finding ways for a club to win more matches, you may wish this side of the sport didn’t exist. But it does, and it’s going to make its presence felt in the front office. If you don’t like it, you could always follow my longstanding advice and go to where the game really, really needs your help—the lower leagues, where winning is still everything, at least until they get to the Premier League and it becomes time to build that global brand. Better planning and smart use of data can, at these levels, make an enormous difference.
The Need for a Football Advanced Data Site
This past week I tweeted that I noticed, informally at least, that the analytics output from the public blogs seemed markedly smaller than at this same time last year.
That prompted a few responses, including a few I hadn’t expected, including this from James Yorke:
@RWhittall also I think xG and that you can’t just pick up that data and write has created a barrier to entry that’s taken time to impact
— James Yorke (@jair1970) May 25, 2016
The very next day, this little tidbit popped up in my Twitter feed:
@mixedknuts The same club later decided to maybe give more focus to traditional scouting as some stats-based signings haven’t delivered.
— Chopped Coconut (@choppedcoconut) May 26, 2016
That’s right: allegedly, at least one football club turned to these fan data sites as a scouting resource, and then discarded them.
Now, I should be clear in that I think that Squawka and Whoscored do some good work and certainly have helped provide a nice resource for fans who want to do a little more digging into the game. Moreover, this story could be completely bogus (no offence, internet user named Chopped Coconut).
Nevertheless, judging by reddit.com/r/soccer, there are a great many fans of the game who believe the game data and the way it is presented on these sites provide meaningful, predictive insights. This is false.
The simple fact is there is no site which exists which presents advanced data metrics, fully backed and licensed by one of the main event data providers in the industry.
While I still think there is tremendously insightful work to be done on all sorts of aspects of the game that don’t require the use of xG data sets to complete, at some point, the non-existence of a site like this could provide a major barrier to entry to advancing the field. That will attract fewer stats analysts to the game, and clubs will have less of a clue as to what is good out there and what is not. And it only takes one negative experience with data analytics for a director of football or club owner to say, “Forget it, we have other areas in need of critical financial resources.”
So, hint hint, nudge nudge event data company execs and/or anyone else with the capital to pursue something like this. I know you’re out there.
As for the analysts who do produce work, beginning next week, my uhh…contractual obligations will allow me to start looking at the work that is being done right now in a more critical light, particularly as I kind of have a working theory as to how data analysis might best help the vast majority of clubs out there.