It’s been nearly four years since I joined the Perform office in Singapore and plunged head-first into the sports data world, via Opta.
Initially, our work in-region centred on distributing performance
data for globally-followed leagues like the English Premier League, German Bundesliga
and Spanish La Liga. We still do a lot of work in that space, but in recent
years, have seen our coverage of Asian competitions grow by more than 300 per
cent – thanks in part to federation partnerships and a growing team based across
As we distribute data on these newly-covered leagues, we often
find ourselves interacting with people of different data comfort levels. Although
the understanding and acceptance of data is generally increasing with time, there
are still some misconceptions about the work that we do.
‘It’s for the unfeeling’
Data is often associated with cold server rooms and Excel
spreadsheets. While this might reflect how raw data is stored or processed, curated
performance data adds weight to the words and ideas shared with sporting
audiences around the world across broadcast, digital, social and more.
An Opta fact we shared about Chelsea’s Diego Costa committing zero fouls against Arsenal in September 2015 might infuriate Arsenal fans who watched the striker bully Koscielny throughout the Saturday fixture. Likewise, a fact about Queen’s Park Rangers beating Nottingham Forest for the first time in 84 years will bring relief to travelling QPR fans, who have made many agonising away trips in their lifetime (myself included).
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Our data editorial team might trawl the database to explore
an initial hunch, but once qualified, this unearthing of context allows content
to encompass both personality and empathy to different sub-groups of fans that
exist in the ecosystem.
‘It’s for a niche audience’
Data has permeated every aspect of everyday decision-making and we often take it for granted. The fact we accept data processing in features like ‘Discover Weekly’ on Spotify and ‘Recommended For You’ on Netflix proves that something born out of a geeky environment can have a very ordinary and unassuming execution.
In sport, integrated data allows us to see who lies bottom of our fantasy football league and who should therefore pay for the next office lunch – and all within seconds. Raw data might be for the ‘geeks’, but data application, when done well, is for everyone.
‘It’s for the armchair experts’
Assuming there’s a trade-off between experience and data appreciation is quite the logical fallacy. In the age of ‘fake news’ and sensory overload, audiences are becoming far more discerning with information that is being disseminated. They have the means to fact-check what is being discussed and the channels to influence their network quickly – and have every right to do so.
For industry professionals, underestimating public knowledge is akin to sleeping in the lion’s den
For industry professionals, underestimating public knowledge is akin to sleeping in the lion’s den. There is a new level of accountability among content creators and this is one of the reasons that broadcast pundits who are former players and data-savvy thrive in today’s world.
‘It’s secondary to the match report’
Consumption patterns are changing and there is a widening gap between generations and how they appreciate sport. My dad would watch any and every minute of football made available to him, but my nine-year-old brother would pay more attention to Pogba’s 27 tiny steps in his penalty run-up against Everton that was proved by the Internet to be slower than Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint.
One is not more correct than the other; the reality is that sports fans are increasingly viewing sport through a fragmented lens of interpretation. They are not always sitting there through the full 90-minutes but could watch a curated clip or meme – a consequence of broadcasting in the digital age.
Results still matter when it comes to chasing trophies or avoiding
relegation, but there are a lot of sports fans sitting in between who might find
affinity in other narratives. Focusing only on match reporting would isolate
you from this growing pool of followers.
‘It’s completely objective’
Not quite, and anyone who sells that dream would be sweeping reality under the rug. Data brings us one step closer to authentic truth but still has its elements of subjectivity, which is only natural in a process that involves human interpretation at some levels. Data, or more correctly a collection of datasets, allow us to refine our findings and get closer to objectivity than if we had chosen to stay at ground zero. There is no real finish line with data – it’s a continual process of refining and innovating.
To maximise the value of sports data, one must acknowledge
that consumers are no longer consuming sport in a linear, predictable fashion. Innovation
in digital, virtual/augmented reality and artificial intelligence could make
moot a lot of assumptions that stand today.
Opta, the sports data company now owned by Perform, was founded in 1996, with much of our early work focused on branded player indices. It is rather unlikely that the founding team would have foreseen the use of our database to power ‘Excitement Indexes’ for over-the -top media services or to create World Cup Quiz Skills for the Amazon Alexa voice platform some two decades later.
By focusing on the process rather than the form of output,
whatever the broadcast and digital landscape looks like in the future, data can
continue to be the key ingredient inspiring and powering innovation. That is
what makes the work in this space so exciting.