The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part Four: The Fans)

So here we are at Part Four, the final episode to this four-part series covering big data in football.

So far, we’ve looked at three key players in the burgeoning industry of football analytics and statistics: the scouts, the coaches and the scientists. We’ve seen the ways that data-driven analyses have revolutionized and modernized the beautiful game, and we’ve discussed the ways that clubs, managers and players all stand to benefit.

But undoubtedly, the most important player in all of this—and the player that will get the most enjoyment out of this new big data revolution in football—is the fan.

Because after all, it’s because of the fans that football as a profession (extending to all associated occupations) exists. It’s because of the fans (and the money and consumption power that come with them) that leagues strive to design the best and most marketable product possible, and clubs in turn do all they can to boost performance, win silverware and attract even more fans.

It’s all a beautiful cycle that—overlooking the cynicism surrounding money in modern football—will only spin faster, and the components will only get more closely knit together.

Not only will fans benefit from the better competition on the field of play, but they have also been at the forefront of the analytics movement: They’ve driven some of the newest innovations themselves with their own interests in statistics, and as such there have been whole industries created and extended to include football in their reach.

To best gauge where the big data movement in football currently is and predict how it’s going to further develop, we turn to the fans to best see what we’ll experience next.


A sample of Opta’s offerings, courtesy of optasports.com

Data Providers

It’s hard to really trace football analytics back to one founder, but Charles Reep, a former wing commander, is probably a good person to start with, in the early 1950s.

Reep went about collecting football statistics by himself to suggest that “the key to scoring goals and winning games was to transfer the ball as quickly as possible from back to front,” thereby indirectly starting the long-ball movement in English football. This must-read Forbes article details his monumental role in both football analytics and as such the stereotypical English footballing style.

Over the years, football statistics have evolved into a profession in itself. As we have covered in previous installments of this series, there are now professional statistical analysis firms like ProZone and Opta, who provide data to football clubs, coaches and leagues, who pay for such services to ensure they can remain in control of their performances and results as much as possible, by monitoring their players and opponents.

And through fan interest, more and more statistics and related analyses are being made available to fans for casual enjoyment, either to back up a viewpoint in a friendly bar conversation, or to challenge a friend’s opinion.

At the center of this, again, is Opta. With the expertise and reach that they provide—not to mention their reputation—Opta now supply the data at the heart of many a football statistics website and app (we’ll cover more of those later). As we can see in their official About page, Opta pride themselves on a “consistent and reliable approach across [their] global data collection operation.”

Behind many high-profile platforms, such as Sky’s innovative touchscreen app used by their football analysts on live TV, lie Opta and their statistical work. (Of course, they’re not limited to football either; their rugby coverage has also been met with critical acclaim.) A large number of websites also make use of Opta’s statistics to produce critical analyses and come up with insights and scoring patterns of their own.

This blog entry from AnalysisMarketing has a good selection and review of popular football sites that use Opta as their statistical backbone. Two of them, EPLIndex.com and WhoScored.com, are frequently quoted for their statistics-heavy commentaries and opinion pieces; indeed, their tweets are popular during football matches, though not as iconic as Opta’s own tweets, which have been the subject of case studies and awards.


The Sky Sports touchscreen technology, courtesy of thedrum.com

Fantasy Football and the Future

At the intersection of the Internet, the sports world and a growing fascination with numbers is the phenomenon that is fantasy sports.

For years, American sports in particular have been a huge hit with their fantasy leagues and games that are contested among fans—the March Madness bracket of college basketball has found its way to national prominence, with President Barack Obama a keen fan and follower, and it’s often more difficult to find a young college student without a bracket than another with a set of constantly changing predictions.

While fantasy American football is exploding and becoming a hugely lucrative and exciting industry, so fantasy football has been expanding in its own right, largely and not surprisingly coinciding with the increase in interest in the numbers and statistics behind football.

Fans of fantasy football will know well the three big versions of the game offered by the FA Premier League, ESPN and Yahoo!, and the differences in how they tabulate and score points for each position and each contribution towards the game show emphases on different aspects of the game, and has naturally prompted discussion on the merits of each fantasy league.

When we look at the burgeoning interest in fantasy football as it is, it’s hard not to ponder the potential that the game has for fans, for number-crunchers and for statistics lovers. (Before we do that, let’s also take a moment and pay tribute to Football Manager, the original statistics-loving football fan’s wonderland, still more powerful in 2013.)

Current protocol has it that defenders and goalkeepers score points for clean sheets while forwards do not, that they score more points per goals scored than midfielders and forwards—generally that each position is awarded points based on the player doing what essentially is in his job description on the pitch.

But how tantalizing is the thought—and we wouldn’t be surprised if this movement were already starting—that, with so much data being made available to fans, they would be able to design leagues by themselves among like-minded friends who wanted to focus more on niche attributes?

Would midfielders who tried more defence-splitting passes and completed more key passes per game score more than those who are simply their clubs’ designated penalty-takers? Would defensive midfielders who allowed fewer dribbles past them and achieved a higher tackling success rate be as valuable in the fantasy football world as forwards who scored goals? Would defenders who ventured forward more and played a larger proportion of their passes on the ground be more highly prized than those who simply got points by staying back, defending and keeping a clean sheet?

How these combinations and permutations would be constructed and conceptualized is entirely down to the imaginations of fans—and in the future we could see fans not just asking whether you’re playing the official EPL fantasy league, but whether you’re in the tiki-taka school or the long-ball-merchant hall.

How’s that for a communalization of football statistics?

 

Apps, Casual Analyses and More?

But we’re not done yet.

The natural extension of award-winning statistics-based websites is the mobile app, and we can start our discussion here with the Telegraph’s compilation of “essential” football apps.

One of the most high-profile football data apps is probably FourFourTwo’s award-winning Stats Zone app, which is driven by data from Opta and covers a wide range of leagues across the globe. Its unique selling point, for those who don’t already have it on their phones, is that it allows fans to pinpoint their own areas of interest and can share their analyses over social media and email.

Unsurprisingly, this innovative approach and user-centric design has led to a quick expansion of the Stats Zone app, which has been met with considerable joy from fans all over the world. (That last part was based on pure conjecture, but we suspect that it’s mostly true, even without data to back us up.)

Another product that has seen a remarkable rise within a year is Squawka, which styles itself as a second-screen app, riding on the unmistakable wave of second-screen technology currently taking over mobile devices.

It’s this provision of data visualization and easy-to-manage statistics and graphs that have propelled Squawka to their unique position as a favorite tool both for fans and for advertisers, who see unparalleled screen time due to its continued, undistracted presence on a tablet screen for a viewer. No surprise, then, that Squawka has quickly added commentary pieces and news articles to its burgeoning collection of football information throughout the past year—it launched in June 2012—and no surprise that it’s received significant interest from outside the football industry and from investors excited at a new business frontier.

And it doesn’t stop there. Squawka also looks at trends beyond what’s happening on the pitch. A groundbreaking project with DataSift allowed Squawka to track social media activity on Twitter during Chelsea’s home defeat to Manchester United on October 28, 2012 (less than five months after its official launch). The relative spikes in activity in correlation with key moments in the match provided insight into fan behaviors, and there’s more to come.

The quotes from Squawka cofounder and CEO Sanjit Atwal towards the end of the Guardian piece hint at future potential of data visualization and tracking beyond football: “Does a bit of ultimately unnecessary skill boost online reaction more than a simple yet effective pass? Do foreign players get more abuse for diving than their English counterparts?”

More than just helping stimulate reactions towards 22 players kicking a ball around a stadium, these analytics companies are trekking into unchartered territory: human behavior, social psychology and anthropology.

Ladies and gentlemen: Football, the beautiful game.

This piece first appeared on BusinessofSoccer.com, where I cover business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology in football.

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