Category Archives: TV and broadcasting

Is a European Super League an Inevitable Next Step in World Football?

The past couple of weeks in European football have thrown up some interesting scenarios, perhaps unthinkable just a few years ago, which have thrown into question the competitiveness and balance even in the leading domestic leagues around Europe.

When Chelsea loaned Thibaut Courtois, then one of the hottest goalkeeping talents in the world, almost three years ago to Atletico Madrid, surely they didn’t expect to have to waive a contract clause at the prospect of facing their loanee in the Champions League semifinal.

When Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga and upset the status quo just a few years ago, surely they didn’t expect that a comprehensive 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the league would mean as little as it just did, given that Pep Guardiola’s side had just become the quickest team ever to win the German championship.

These are but two incidents that have reflected the reality of European football these days (and there are many more—think Bayern’s ruthless snapping up of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund, supposedly their closest rivals).

And the reality is that, while the top-tier leagues, especially in England with the Premier League, have started to break away from their lesser domestic competitions, those cream-of-the-crop clubs at the top of the European game have begun to form a mini exclusive club of their own.

Perhaps it’s time to consider not whether a European Super League would be a fun and interesting side project for club owners to think about, but whether it is actually an inevitable next step in world football.

 

Kerstin Joensson

 

Booming broadcast and television revenues

It’s hard to point a finger at a definitive starting point for this spiraling breakaway of the European elite, but BT Sport’s staggering £897 million three-year exclusive deal to broadcast live Champions League and Europa League games starting from 2015, announced last November via BBC Sport, is a good start.

Given the amount of money involved in the European game, it’s no surprise that the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool have made qualifying for the Champions League essentially a barometer of their season-to-season success in the Premier League.

Of course, it’s a cyclical game—perhaps even a snowball effect—in which money drives commercialization and encourages clubs and league administrators to package the sport as a “consumer product,” which focuses on entertainment value in the form of stadiums, overall team play and individual superstars, which boosts widespread interest and thus potential income, and so on.

But it’s not as if those involved in the beautiful game at the top level are trying their level best to keep the game devoid of any adverse effects from the money involved. Far from it.

Just this January, the Telegraph reported that the Premier League wanted to bring forth the next “auction” of football broadcasting rights by six months, which sources allegedly claimed was a show of “opportunism” from the league in “attempting to exploit the fierce competition between BSkyB and BT, and the resulting increase in the value of sports rights.”

As the game of football evolves at the top level and clubs become ever more like global corporations, even the ordinary football fan has evolved into being a consumer from their clubs’ point of view.

And how do businesses engage with their consumers? By providing high-quality goods (in this case, high-quality performances with a dose of superstardom, delivered at every broadcast opportunity across every possible channel).

A further case illustrating the financial explosion of the modern game once again focuses on the aggressive increase of Premier League prize money: A Telegraph report in May 2013 mentioned that Manchester United’s £60.8 million in TV money, a record sum for a Premier League champion, would be eclipsed the following season by the club that finishes bottom of the league because of new broadcasting deals.

 

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

 

Exponential inflation of player valuations

The sheer amount of money involved in top-level football highlights the indispensability of the sport to TV networks and channels, which in turn drives up their bids to carry these matches.

But from both the clubs’ and the fans’ points of view, this is merely a reflection of an ever-increasing and ever-vociferous demand for the sport—especially as clubs and leagues are becoming more business-savvy and expanding into markets never previously thought lucrative or even possible.

Which means that top-level footballers and top-level coaches, who turn top-level footballers into top-level teams on the pitch, gradually become a premium commodity to be traded to those willing to shell out a fortune in anticipation of the potential upsides.

And so we have eye-watering deals like Gareth Bale’s world record transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid, who themselves set the previous record by signing Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. And vastly inflated contracts like Wayne Rooney’s new extension at Old Trafford, which reportedly will land him a mammoth £300,000 a week, per BBC Sport.

Suddenly, the prevalence of money in the modern game has made it an essential part of both player decisions and transfer strategies. Players appoint ruthless agents to extract the best deal for themselves and their clients, while clubs head towards the murky waters of outbidding each other for star names.

The supply line has just shot up in value.

And those organizations who can afford to shell out the big bucks to procure such mercurial and overpriced talent—some through the generosity of a well-off benefactor—become the most important players in the financial game of football.

It’s no surprise, then, that Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski put forth in Soccernomics that football clubs in capital cities are best positioned to dominate the European game in the future: Take the financial “capital” in the cities and you instantly have the most powerful hybrids of money, geography and power across football clubs in Europe.

 

Marc Mueller

 

A whole new, exclusive playing field

Where does this bring us?

On the one hand, the growing demand of top-level football means that there will only ever be greater sums of money spent by fans and reflected in megadeals between leagues, clubs and broadcasters.

On the other hand, the explosion of player valuations means that agents will continue to grow in prominence and importance, while player power will entrench itself as an institutional concept in modern football—and only a handful of football clubs are even equipped to handle such major deals.

Which essentially means that the footballing world is their oyster.

As players vie to get into those clubs as a sign of their ability and ambition and as clubs strive to either maintain their place in that elite group or try their utmost to break into the oligarchy, a whole new, exclusive playing field has taken form for the big boys up top.

La Liga has traditionally been the easiest and most glaring example of a “top two” league, with Barcelona and Real Madrid maintaining a hegemony on proceedings in Spain until Atletico burst onto the scene this season, while recently Bayern Munich has become a textbook example of just how far a first-placed team can pull away from its closest challenger.

Sooner or later, as egos, ambitions and competitiveness are wont to trump all in sport, these big players will yearn for a platform where they can pit their wits against each other on a regular basis, to claim a title that will truly prove their dynasties.

The concept of a European Super League suddenly doesn’t sound so far-fetched after all. In fact, it almost sounds as if it’s going to be the next big evolution in world football.

And just as TV networks have continued to scramble for big broadcasting deals just to get a slice of the ever-growing pie, football clubs not yet in the “Super League” category will fight tooth and nail, and spend an arm and a leg to try to get there.

There will be plenty of new entertainment for football fans—and plenty of inadvertent and unfortunate financial casualties as well.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

The World Cup: Evolution from Celebration of Football to Money-Making Exercise

“No decision will be taken before the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, as agreed by the FIFA executive committee.”

Source? An official FIFA statement, via the Guardian. Topic? Whether the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be held in the summer or winter, of course; it’s only been the topic that’s consumed most international football fans and FIFA observers in the past few months.

The timing though? Immediately after Jerome Valcke, the FIFA secretary general, suggested to a French radio station that the World Cup might be moved to November 2022 after all.

Confused? You’re not the only one. But what’s been made apparent from the Qatar World Cup 2022 debacle, is that besides all the confusion and suspicions, the focus has firmly been taken away from what the World Cup is supposed to celebrate: football, the game itself.

Sure, the talk has revolved around Qatar’s temperatures in the summer, which would make for harsh conditions for players and fans alike, but surely that would’ve been a factor in the decision-making process leading up to awarding Qatar the host rights, instead of a topic to be discussed afterwards.

That Sepp Blatter and FIFA want to bring the World Cup to the Middle East is not a secret: Back in November, he even entertained the idea of hosting the tournament across several countries in the Gulf region, according to the Telegraph. So the globalization of football and the expansion of FIFA are two key items on the agenda, and both politics and money are equally prominent at the heart of all this, as we studied in an earlier article on the World Cup controversies.

But how exactly did the World Cup get to this current state? To answer that question, let’s go back and trace the evolution of the world’s most prestigious tournament from celebration of football to money-making exercise.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The Olympics: Eternal Rival and…Founding Father?

To understand the World Cup’s evolution and growth, we must first consider the history of the Olympic Games, eternally seen as the World Cup’s rival tournament in terms of global reach and prestige.

The distinction is always made that the Olympics celebrate not just one sport, but sport as man’s pastime, while the World Cup is only the gathering of footballing nations in the world—and before the United States’ entry and strong showing, not even encompassing the entire world. The World Cup’s proponents point to the final as the premier spectacle in world sport, with no single sporting match able to match its global appeal.

In reality, while they might be rivals now and trying to outdo each other every two years, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, the World Cup has the Olympics to thank for its current iteration and success, because it was the Olympics that gave birth to the World Cup as we know it.

When FIFA was founded in 1904, international football—indeed, professional football—was a phenomenon only affordable for a few countries, and when football was inducted into the Olympic Games in the summer of 1908, only amateurs were represented. Any attempt at organizing a truly international football tournament was undermined by the lack of professional setups in most countries around the world.

But when Uruguay won both the Olympic football tournaments in 1924 and 1928, FIFA, with then president Jules Rimet as a visionary driving force, stood up, took notice, and most importantly, set about realizing his dream. The first FIFA World Cup was to be staged in 1930 in Uruguay, with politics—what else?—at the heart of the host location decision: It was to be the 100th anniversary of Uruguay’s independence, and it was to be made not a great celebration of the game itself, but a spectacular political statement.

How else to explain it, given that the Uruguay national football association was willing to cover all travel and accommodation costs incurred by participating teams? As even FIFA.com concedes, that possible profits would be shared with participants and deficits taken on by the host country won Uruguay the first ever World Cup hosting rights.

The 1934 competition was held in fascist Italy under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, and Rimet, according to this excellent Independent feature on his life, was already criticized for politicizing football.

Before the advent of television and the phenomenon of globalization, the World Cup had surrounded itself with politics and money.

(A footnote to add, though, is that Jules Rimet’s vision and dream of uniting the world through sport and creation of the World Cup earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1956. Perhaps, hopefully, the World Cup at its heart was actually more than a celebration of the beautiful game, but a triumph of humanity.)

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

The Context: Globalization and Technology

But just as we can’t give the Olympics all the credit for introducing the concept of a FIFA World Cup, so Rimet and FIFA can’t claim all the glory for growing the tournament from a small competition featuring just a few countries in Montevideo, Uruguay, to the global spectacle that was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

As ever, context is key, and the explosion of global business and trade, just as it’s played a huge role in the history of the 1900s, is an integral part of the World Cup’s continued evolution. Before the business side of things took over, though, first came the phenomenon of television.

According to this TIME feature, the impact of television on the World Cup’s boom cannot be understated: From 1954 to 1986, the number of TV sets worldwide “increased more than twentyfold, from a little more than 30 million to more than 650 million.” This laid the foundations for a truly groundbreaking moment in football history.

The first live World Cup games were broadcast in Europe in the 1954 tournament, which reached only a handful of audiences due to the low volume of matches shown, but the potential of television and TV advertising was already apparent. (Not that the Olympics were to be beaten, of course: The 1936 Summer Olympics were the first to be broadcast on TV to local audiences. International broadcasts came in 1956.)

Fast forward a decade and a half. Spying an opportunity to conquer the world of football and reap the ensuing economic benefits in 1974, was new FIFA president Joao Havelange, who upon taking office turned his organization into a modern international NGO, putting in place the infrastructure, people and income-centered mindset of a corporation.

The only thing left to do for the World Cup, which previously featured 16 national teams, was to expand. And expand Havelange did, opening the doors to developing countries with eight additional slots (which have since been further increased to a total of 32 participants since France 1998), as discussed by Tim Vickery for The World Game. The Havelange era also saw the introduction of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, FIFA U-20 World Cup, FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The costs of hosting such an immense global tournament in one country were too much to bear for one host country and FIFA, and thus came the idea of corporate sponsorship of the World Cup. Havelange struck deals with Horst Dassler, heir to the Adidas fortune, for the German sportswear company and other big-name corporations like Coca-Cola to fund the tournament, paving the way for the commercialization of international football.

So while the advent of television advertising led to increased premiums for marketers to get their spots onto World Cup TV screens, behind the scenes within FIFA itself was a concerted movement to pump money into the World Cup—with political and economic influence once again the main motivation behind all these changes.

(The name Joao Havelange may be familiar. He was the same FIFA ex-president that resigned in April 2013 after a FIFA ethics report ruled that he had taken bribes, as reported by BBC Sport. The culprit in question? International Sport and Leisure [ISL], founded by Horst Dassler. Politics and money, indeed.)

Getty Images/Getty Images

The 1990s and Onwards: Spiraling Out of Control

If ever there was a curious decision in the history of world sport, the idea to host the 1994 World Cup in the US was clearly one, at the time. In hindsight, however, it was just another calculated plan from Havelange to bring the game to North American shores, which had yet to be consumed by football fever.

The legacy was stunning: To this date, USA 1994 still holds the total attendance record (over 3.5 million) and the average attendance record (68,991), according to USSoccer.com. The US’s advancement to the round of 16 for the first time since 1930 contributed to soaring TV ratings.

(Leading up to its hosting of the World Cup, the US also put in place their first ever professional soccer league. It’s no surprise that Major League Soccer was founded in 1993, a year before the 1994 World Cup. We explore the growth of soccer in the US in another article.)

The introduction of the World Cup in practically uncharted territory in 1994 was met with enormous financial successes, and since its foray into the world leader of commercialized sport and corporate sponsorship, FIFA have never looked back. The World Cup has since traveled to Asia (2002) and Africa (2010), goes to Russia in 2018, and brings us to the Middle East in 2022.

According to this Economist article, the World Cup broadcasting rights for France ’98 were sold by FIFA in 1987, before the stunning 1994 American success, for $344 million. An indication of how far the World Cup and FIFA have gone: In 1998, at the time of the article, ISL—which would later collapse, of course—had agreed to pay $2.2 billion to show the games outside America.

The groundwork for corporate sponsorship was laid by Havelange, but was taken to new levels under the leadership of current president Sepp Blatter. Let’s consider the 2010 World Cup, for example: According to a UPenn study, FIFA’s revenues related to the South Africa tournament amounted to a staggering $1.022 billion, of which $650 million belonged to broadcasting rights.

Participating national teams are in on the act too: FIFA was to provide $420 million to all participants and the football league teams providing players to the national teams, $30 million of which would go to the World Cup-winning team (Spain). First-round teams qualified automatically for $8 million each, while $1 million in preparation costs were provided to each participating football association.

This was brought about by the stellar line-up of corporate FIFA sponsors, known as “partners,” which included Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates Airlines, Hyundai-Kia Motors, Sony and Visa, who were “guaranteed exposure in the tournament stadium” and would receive “direct advertising and promotional opportunities and preferential access to TV advertising.”

The cost? A minimum of between 100 and million euros through to 2014. By which time, of course, the next World Cup cash cow will be held this summer, this time in Brazil.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Conclusion: It’ll Only Get More Expensive From Here

Is it damning or merely inevitable that corporate sponsorship and incessant marketing efforts are now part and parcel of any World Cup?

In the build-up to this summer’s tournament, the allegations of corruption have been brushed aside after Havelange’s resignation in 2013, while all the talk of political and commercial interests have been directed towards the distant 2022 World Cup in Qatar, still eight years away.

It’s no longer news—rather, it’s an accepted fact—that the World Cup is now considered an extremely lucrative opportunity for brands and nations alike; this Fox article on Nike and Adidas’ brand battle pre-World Cup is now just part of the fabric. In fact, any sports company—or indeed any business entity at all—would be condemned for not taking advantage of a World Cup year to promote its business.

And so it’s only going to get more expensive from here. The spending and rights associated with the premier world football tournament have skyrocketed in the past decade or so, with the help and under the influence of a few key players, but the brand-new stadiums that are to be constructed in host countries are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to World Cup spending.

But it’s the World Cup. Just as FIFA continue to rake in the cash, we football fans will continue to ignore the commercial influences and political battles and focus on the spectacle that will unfold before our eyes when the first whistle is blown on June 12 at the Arena de Sao Paulo.

An event of this magnitude only comes once every four years, after all. When the winning team hoists the Jules Rimet trophy on July 13, for once the celebrations will be directed entirely towards the football that they have played, not the money they will make.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League, and at times on the business of football.

The Football Business Column: MLS Expansions, Premier League Interest and the Rise of Football in the US

The latest installment in the never-ending story surrounding Major League Soccer and its expansion plans arrived last week, as Orlando City Soccer Club was officially announced as the league’s 21st franchise, to join New York City Football Club as new entrants in 2015.

The story of football’s expansion and rise in the US is impressive, especially given the context of its domestic league’s relative young age, but a look at the FIFA World Rankings shows that at 14th place (as of the time of writing), the US is here to stay.

To explore just how football has developed in America though, we have to first look back across the pond and to the Premier League, whose increasingly globalized product is at the heart of it all.

 

NBC Sports deliver polished Premier League product to US audiences

The new PL carrier in England, BT Sport, recently struck a groundbreaking deal to carry the Champions League from 2015-2018, as reported by BBC Sport.

But they’re arguably not even the biggest newcomer to have caused waves through the football television industry. That accolade goes to America’s NBC Sports, who have well and truly taken football coverage in the US up several notches, especially in comparison with the likes of FOX Soccer and ESPN.

NBC’s coverage is a curiously familiar one, especially to those already well versed in typical English broadcasts. There’s little to interfere with normal play, and the analysis shows before and after the matches—as well as during half-time—all feature English commentators and pundits.

Essentially, NBC have stuck to the basics and not delivered any coverage that might come across as patronizing towards the American viewer; they’ve assumed that their audience is familiar with football and have promoted intelligent discussion with this as the basic assumption.

Add in the aggressive marketing campaigns that NBC have embarked on—especially in New York City in the buildup to the 2013/14 season—and the conclusion thus far is that the English Premier League has been an unequivocal success. Keeping with the core English base but adding some of that famous American marketing and broadcasting technique on top? Sounds like a winner.

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesFootball’s rise in America

For avid fans of the Premier League—and no doubt for its executive team—the fact that NBC’s coverage has been a success in America bodes well for the future of what is surely now the world’s most popular and exported professional sports league, so much so that the PL is now seen in some circles as NBC’s flagship product.

But those worried about any possible decrease in interest in the US’ own Major League Soccer because of the widespread coverage of the Premier League need not fret: According to this New York Times report, since PL coverage began on NBCSN, viewership of the eight MLS games on NBC has increased by 60 percent, while the number of unique visitors to NBC-streamed MLS games has jumped 322 percent.

There was never any worry about Americans’ interest in their own national teams in World Cup years—whether it be the men’s or the women’s tournament. Neither was there ever any worry, especially in recent years, about support of their local MLS teams, who have boasted stadium attendance numbers to rival and surpass those of both the NBA and NHL, according to this Forbes article. Nor was there any worry about American football fans paying attention to their overseas-based stars, such as Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (the latter two have, of course, returned to the US).

So the fact that TV viewership of MLS is rising—and alongside the Premier League—is massively encouraging for the sport and its growth prospects in the world’s most sports-consumption-heavy country.

USA TODAY SportsMLS expansion, aggression and inevitable evolution

Given the Americans’ propensity and expertise at marketing, commercialization and business expansion—and especially given the increase in the number of American owners of European football clubs—was it any wonder that interest, both foreign and American, would eventually return to US shores?

Setting aside the increasing trend of relatively big names in Europe spending their final footballing years in MLS, the incident that really indicated the prospect of a “soccer boom” in the US was Manchester City’s investment in their joint venture, New York City FC, due to join MLS in 2015.

Sheikh Mansour interested in American growth and influence? A partnership with one of Europe’s newest big boys? Almost seems too good to be true.

If that wasn’t enough indication of a new era beckoning in American football (ahem), what about the recent announcement of the Orlando City SC franchise expansion—and the imminent possibility of a Miami-based MLS venture backed by David Beckham?

That both of these developments have hit the airwaves is not surprising: MLS have shown textbook aggression by aiming to capitalize on a rising wave of interest in football, by proclaiming that the Orlando-Miami rivalry will be one to look forward to, according to the Miami Herald. The bullish pronouncements of Orlando City’s owners, reported here by BBC Sport, regarding the possible signing of Brazilian star and AC Milan legend Kaka merely add to the hype.

And if even that wasn’t enough, surely the recent revelation that MLS franchises have increased 175 percent in value over the past five years (c/o SportBusiness.com) will do it. The current average valuation is $103 million, with seven teams—Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City—already surpassing it. (Don’t be surprised if NYCFC and OCSC join them at the top by 2016.)

Harry How/Getty ImagesThe growth will only continue. The beautiful thing about the beautiful game is that once interest starts to grow, it snowballs. And the beginnings of a real football revolution are starting to take place in America.

Which, inevitably, leaves club owners and the league with big decisions to make over the coming years, regarding the direction that they want to take the sport in. Murmurs of instituting the promotion and relegation system, so ubiquitous in the European leagues but almost nonexistent in the US, are growing in noise level, and with MLS expanding to a grand total of 21 teams by 2015 (22 if Miami is awarded a franchise by then), that leaves MLS wanting to join the world’s collection of elite first-division football leagues with the most number of teams in it.

The rest of the infrastructure—league-paid transfer fees, league-owned players, salary caps and Designed Player systems—is currently still a universe away from what the top professionals in Europe are familiar with, and there will need to be an inevitable coming together of practices and policies if MLS are to break into that top bracket of leagues.

While that’s being pondered by Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, and his executive team, they’ll continue to see the steady growth of the beautiful game in the US.

Perhaps one day, it’ll be they who look forward to exporting their product overseas.

 

This piece originally appeared on Bleacher Report and is also part of my Football Business Column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

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.

The Football Business Column: The Business and Politics Behind the 2022 Qatar World Cup Controversies

“It may well be that we made a mistake at the time.”

Given the fresh controversy surrounding the death of migrant workers on the building sites for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Sepp Blatter’s public admission in early September to Inside World Football (h/t ESPN) seems all the more pertinent. If only he’d thought of such implications and possibilities before actually approving the final decision.

No matter. What’s happened has already happened, but FIFA are now left to pick up the considerable refuse that has been generated in the wake of the significant recent fallout over the decision to award the tiny Middle Eastern emirate the hosting rights of the world’s most prestigious single-sport tournament. The problems are rooted in politics, as they were always going to be given the universality of the world’s most popular sport, and the international involvement in and exposure to the game.

Surely more background digging should’ve been conducted prior to the bid, and surely more scrutiny should’ve been paid to the implementation process by FIFA and the Qatari authorities, to avoid any potential banana skin in their grand ambitious plan to bring the tournament to new and exotic places on the planet.

Simply put, the migrant worker situation should’ve been researched and taken into consideration in the bid process. It might have been a bit too political to go into the human rights records and agendas of host countries, but it’s FIFA, it’s the World Cup and it’s all about politics anyway.

David Cannon/Getty Images

The Politics

“The World Cup and foreign labor abuse in host countries” sounds exactly like the kind of problem that should never have been inflicted on FIFA in the first place, such is the emphasis given to the separation of football from politics and anything of the sort. Sadly, this was always going to be tough.

Especially with, in Blatter’s words, football being “a global unifying force for the good, a force that offers to be inclusive in every which way and a force that has written anti-discrimination on its banner under my presidency.” Especially with FIFA’s goal to bring the World Cup to places that haven’t hosted it before—South Africa, Brazil, Russia and now Qatar (representing the Middle East); the likes of Australia and China are surely not far behind.

It’s in this context that Blatter’s admission to German newspaper Die Zeit (h/t The Guardian)—“European leaders recommended to its voting members to opt for Qatar, because of major economic interests in this country”—appears particularly worrying. Not only this: UEFA president Michel Platini has one-upped Blatter and suggested to the Associated Press (h/t The Washington Post) that this sort of political influence was commonplace in international tournaments: “With the extraordinary influence Mr. Blatter has, he has only all of a sudden realized there are political and economic influences when we decide who will host an Olympic Games and so forth?”

A public spat that not only casts a pessimistic, cynical light over proceedings, but one that should be avoided in the first place. Not even Platini’s insistence that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t personally ask him to vote for Qatar despite Sarkozy’s political support will clear anything up.

And it’s led to Qatar’s FIFA 2022 World Cup Organizing Committee secretary-general Hassan Al Thawadi defending his country’s bid and its legality. There will be lots of questions thrown his way; he’d better get used to fighting the fire.

Handout/Getty Images

The Scheduling

Possibly the biggest question of all when the subject of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is brought up is this: Will it be held in the summer or will it be moved to the winter?

The first thing that comes to mind when we consider a winter World Cup is: What happens to all the leagues that run throughout the year except during the summer? It just so happens that those are the European leagues that have the most worldwide interest, the highest-profile players and the best quality and competition. Just a simple statement from the EPFL, the umbrella body of the major European leagues, will have FIFA scrambling.

The potential problems brought about by disrupting the league calendar are quite significant. It’s not just about asking those leagues to move their domestic calendars for just a season. It’s not just about the feasibility of working out a schedule that also fits in with the Winter Olympics. And it’s not just about moving a four-week tournament, as they’re finally starting to find out, and FIFA will have all kinds of oppositions, protestations and storms to weather in the coming weeks and months (hopefully not years).

Speaking of the weather, never mind the considerations that FIFA should have made regarding the scheduling due to the summer temperatures in Qatar even during the bidding process; now that the question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup at all is being asked again, even the chairman of FIFA’s medical committee has come out in public opposition.

Michel D’Hooghe has gone on record questioning the prospect of holding the tournament in the summer from a medical perspective and has included aspects other than players training and competing in scorching temperatures while he was at it: He mentioned the delegates, the “FIFA family,” the media and would you know it, the fans as well. A FIFA executive keeping the fans in mind?

Another perspective also had the fans’ interests in mind, or so it claimed. This time it was the Australian Football Federation, who lost its original bid for the 2022 World Cup, who has asked for compensation in the event that FIFA do move the tournament to the winter, just because it feels like it’s entitled to “just and fair” compensation to “those nations that invested many millions, and national prestige, in bidding for a summer event.”

The FFA did give some context, acknowledging the place football has in Australia by citing the fact that the A-League runs through the Australian summer (winter in the northern hemisphere) because high-quality stadiums Down Under aren’t as accessible during the rest of the year. FFA chairman Frank Lowy claimed that “clubs, investors, broadcasters, players and fans would all be affected,” which is a valid argument and observation.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The TV Money

Just in case we were getting carried away with the seemingly alien notion that football authorities actually care about the common fan, there are other high-profile cases that shoot us right back down.

Fox Sports, a division of the US television network Fox, have made public theiropposition to any potential switch of the tournament to the winter (h/t Nick Harris of the Daily Mail), simply because “Fox Sports bought the World Cup rights with the understanding they would be in the summer as they have been since the 1930s.”

In this case, it’s about the finance and economics of broadcasting such an event, which, when the numbers involved come to light, are hardly a small matter. FIFA earned a whopping $1.1 billion for the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups; Fox paid around $450 million, while NBC Universal’s Telemundo division bought the Spanish-language rights for $600 million.

And these are US networks that have acknowledged the rise in interest in the “beautiful” game (in quotes for obvious reasons considering the topic of this article) by shelling out for the English Premier League this season, but that are also cautious about having football competing for high-profile prime-time spots alongside the traditional big American sports during the regular American season.

Such is the importance and influence of broadcasters that Ben Rumsby of The Daily Telegraph reports FIFA have allegedly held secret meetings with them in an attempt to “quell opposition to any move,” which all but shows that FIFA are the mercy of their own money-making engines.

Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

The Disillusion

The debate and fevered discussion will no doubt continue for a while yet over the staging of the World Cup—and indeed if it will still be held in Qatar at all—but one thing’s for sure: Given the amount of money and politics involved in the game now, surely these were things that FIFA should’ve considered before awarding the hosting rights to Qatar?

If there had been a clear plan and clear communication during the process—even accounting for the widespread unwillingness to change across footballing authorities and TV networks (understandable, considering the financial implications)—perhaps right now, instead of clashing over it all, everyone would be celebrating that the World Cup Finals are finally arriving in the Middle East.

A disappointing chapter in the history of arguably the world’s most inclusive and socially impactful sport, and an undoubted tarnishing of FIFA’s slogan: “For the game, for the world.” Plenty of work to do still.

This piece originally appeared on Bleacher Report and is also part of my Football Business Column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

The Football Business Column: Enhanced TV Tech, Total Immersion and Video Games

New season, new technology

It’s a new season in the English Premier League. For American fans, this season’s experience should be vastly different from previous years: NBC has taken on the exclusive broadcasting rights to the English top flight in a way that has revolutionized coverage of football in the US; the marketing efforts that have gone behind promoting this whole new offering, as well as the degree of professionalism and thought put into assembling a top-notch broadcasting team, deserve mention and full credit.

But there have been more subtle improvements in Premier League broadcasting that new EPL fans in America would perhaps have taken for credit. The first is the introduction of goal-line technology. In what’s been a considerable (and frankly surprising) turnaround, the higher powers in the game have approved its use, and HawkEye technology—which is known for its use in tennis—has been installed across EPL grounds this season, and it was immediately put to use on Saturday when Hull City goalkeeper Allan McGregor parried a shot off the line against Chelsea. No goal was given, but a long overdue addition of some simple technology in the game: The lack of emotional and irrational debate on online forums in its immediate aftermath was welcome.

liverpool v stoke city

Courtesy of SI.com

And just like TV viewers will have been able to see the HawkEye analysis and replay of McGregor’s decision, so they too were treated to another simple data set on Saturday. When Liverpool’s Daniel Agger handled inside the box and Stoke City midfielder Jonathan Walters prepared to take the penalty, a brief infographic of Walters’ previous penalty attempts flashed onto the bottom of the screen. Walters had a tendency to shoot towards the keeper’s right, and it turns out that Simon Mignolet had the same information as we all did—just that he’d had it prior to the match—and dived onto his right. A little additional feature for viewers: Nothing too major, but some helpful graphics are always welcome.

GoPro goes pro

In the new era of Manchester City, they’ve been one of the quickest in European football to adopt and embrace the latest in technology. Their social media presence and YouTube features have won rave reviews for their interactivity with fans and depth of coverage, and their latest partnership proves that City are once again on the frontier when it comes to technology in football.

On August 21, City announced that they will be partnering up with California-based video camera-maker GoPro to go even more in-depth into the lives of professional footballers. GoPro has been popular amongst extreme sports enthusiasts, and will now be used to film exclusive behind-the-scenes happenings in and around the football club. Players will be wearing it in training (and have done—see the promotional video) and pre-match routines, similar to Nike’s highly-rated “Take It to the Next Level” commercial series.

With Google Glass the newest hype in American sports—the discussion now is on whether referees in the NBA should wear it on the court—how long will it be before the latest technology is widely adopted in the English game? Exciting times.

The business of football games

Football fans can be divided into two camps: The ProEvo camp (Pro Evolution Soccer, or Winning Eleven) or the FIFA camp. It’s not surprising that EA Sports, the developers behind FIFA, have seized on the world’s most popular game as a huge business opportunity, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, there were once major doubts at Electronic Arts whether to develop the game at all. For a fine, fine piece of journalism marrying video games and football, check out this piece on the story of FIFA.

So how best to capture the worldwide football fanbase? EA Sports have recently entered into partnership deals with Manchester City (yup, them again), Liverpool and Everton to act as the clubs’ official video games partner, which means that their coverage on the FIFA games will be even more extensive. Everton’s Goodison Park will be eligible for selection as a stadium in-game, and the EA Sports team have traveled onsite to capture the likenesses of their players to deliver a more authentic representation of the teams in the game. (Here’s a video of Liverpool players getting their images captured.) And of course, there will be EA Sports-sponsored corners in the stadiums for fans to play with each other—and for EA to promote their FIFA games.

Oh, and there’s a final category of football fans. That all-encompassing category—Football Manager. Take it from me: It is a magnificent game, but be warned, for you might end up spending hours on it. That is, if you’re not already an FM fan. Here’s another fine piece of writing covering the FM mania.

 

This piece was my first instalment of my new biweekly column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.