Observed

StatsBomb works with teams all over the world, but as the company increases its presence in the U.S., how are you approaching your strategy?

It’s very much a sport-by-sport kind of approach. We built our business on soccer. StatsBomb started as a soccer analytics blog – then grew into a company with our own tools, our own platforms, and our own visualizations.

We now work with the majority of MLS teams and the majority of Premier League teams, over 120 soccer teams around the world. We have an approach to soccer, and our first port of call in the U.S. is to apply that approach to American Football, which we literally launched at the MIT Sloan Conference in March, so it’s very new. The next one in the pipeline is basketball sometime in 2023.

StatsBomb Radars are a very visually engaging way to process sports data. Can you think of an example where a Radar showed a trend that a viewer couldn’t pick up on just by watching a game?

That’s a good question. It’s less about what the Radar itself has shown – the Radar is obviously just a visualization of the data feed. When we decided to collect soccer data, one of the things that we wanted to do was to collect more metrics and more data points than other people had previously collected, specifically around defensive actions.

So, when somebody goes to pressure an opponent, we register that as a “pressure action.” Previously, other data companies had just collected things that happened on the ball – passes, shots, tackles. We layered on a whole host of other metrics, and this pressure metric was one that was very instructive very early on. 

There’s a center-forward who plays for Liverpool named Roberto Firmino. If you just assess him by the data that was available, pre-StatsBomb, he has good numbers in terms of goals and pretty good numbers in terms of assists, right? He’s an elite player, but you wouldn’t see him being involved that often, really. However, if you layer on the StatsBomb, pressures and other defensive actions that this guy does at the top-end of the pitch for Liverpool, you see that he’s actually incredibly influential in terms of how he performs. 

That kind of thing was just immediately instructive. If you’re one of our teams now, and you want to look for a defensive center-forward who’s going to press from the front and close down actions at the top of the pitch, we have that data across 80, 85 different competitions to see that. In the past, that kind of observation would’ve been completely invisible to you if you were just reading the data.

Our data has different metrics in it that allow people to scout in a different way according to how they want their soccer teams to play. Our CEO had worked for a team, in their analytics department, and had understood the limitations of previously available data. He knew what to look for, he knows soccer. The data just wasn’t fully passing the eye test, which is why StatsBomb got created in the first place.

What’s a sneaky trend in sports analytics that people should be paying attention to this year?

There’s one trend that’s slightly less connected to the actual on-field analytics. Fan bloggers and the fanalyst community – the guys who are very active on social media – have started to get less prominent and less vocal. That’s because these guys are getting hired by teams. 

A few years ago, dozens and dozens of very vocal, very credible, and very insightful amateur enthusiasts would take freely available data from StatsBomb and others and create their own content. You’re seeing less and less of that now, and that’s not because this kind of work isn’t happening, it’s because the teams are all getting smarter. 

Teams know where the talent is, and they are recruiting from social media into their backend and back office. And, once they’re recruited in the back office, they obviously can’t be tweeting their secrets anymore. Things are getting a bit quieter on social media, but it doesn’t mean the work’s happening less. It actually means it’s happening more in more impactful places.

What’s a buzzword that should go away?

I mean, there are loads, and I’ve used them all. I’ve probably used dozens of them today, just this morning.

I have a particular problem with “fan engagement” as a term. I feel like that’s an entirely supply-led term. There are businesses who pitch it as a thing, and I don’t think fans particularly ask for engagement. I think they ask for certain things that may be termed as fan engagement. And the things that are done in the name of fan engagement are all very good, but I don’t particularly like the term myself. 

Sometimes I think if you truly believe in fan engagement, just half the price of the tickets, right?

You’ve just been named the next chairman of Middlesbrough F.C. Congratulations. What’s your first act?

Probably deleting my Twitter account, is probably number one, before the press release goes out so that the fans can’t trawl back through all of my tweets about the team, and haul me over the coals. Everybody who’s a Middlesbrough is a fan from birth, really. My dad took me when I was five or six years old and I’ve been going ever since.

Things are pretty good with Middlesbrough at the minute. We have a good team and a coach who is excellent. We’re doing well, so there’s not too much that I would change. The team is very important to the community and that area in the Northeast of England.

I would just ensure that there were more consistent young players from the region within the team. Dip into the local academies for players as much as possible. We’ve been pretty good on that, but I would make it a fundamental part of our DNA. There’s nothing that connects the team and the area as much as when there’s a successful player who’s come from the area.

I would also try and raise the profile of the women’s team a bit more. Elevate the social media and digital marketing strategy and try and connect it with the marketing of the men’s team a bit more.

Give us your hot take on NFTs.

I’m trying my best to understand them, really. I understand the technology, and I understand the potential utility of the technology in terms of the smart contract and all of that kind of stuff. I just think that the initial use of that technology has just been horrific, really, in terms of just how exploitative it seems to me. 

I’ve never heard anybody who owns an NFT talk about how it’s materially improved their lives. The only people that I’ve heard talk, in a positive way about the NFTs are the people selling NFTs. I can see the ideas that that could spin from it. But at the moment, I’m pretty cynical about how it’s all being brought to market.

What’s one of your favorite places to run?

Anywhere where there’s water, or sun, or a park, really. There’s a place in Leeds called Roundhay Park, which I like a lot. I’ve enjoyed running in Central Park. 

I went on a run down by the river in Boston when I was there for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. I had a full day before my flight after Sloan and ran down one side of the river and back up the other, which was lovely.

For the next year, if you could only listen to music from any five-year period in music history, what era would that be?

Mid-90s grunge, without a moment’s hesitation. I went over to see the guys at the Seattle Sounders a couple of years ago and went to MoPop to see all the Pearl Jam and Nirvana stuff. 14-year-old me was absolutely freaking out at the prospect of being in that city.

If you could start a podcast tomorrow, what would it be about?

B2B marketing, probably. Specifically B2B marketing in sports. When people talk about sports marketing, it centers on the fan engagement side of stuff. “How do we sell more tickets? More merchandise? More hot dogs?” That sort of thing.

There’s a whole undercurrent of sports marketing powering the industry that connects technology vendors to the ecosystem. I worked in that world a long time, and I don’t think it’s very well served with content, really. 

I think there are people like me who, coming up in their careers, ask questions like, “How do I build a B2B brand in this sector?” And they’ve found very little support. There isn’t really a community, and a podcast could help build one.

Who’s a creative person you really admire?

Somebody I will always gravitate towards is Aaron Sorkin. I’m a massive fan of The West Wing, and I’ve watched the entire seven series of that multiple times.

Anything that he writes, I will go and watch. I went to watch his To Kill a Mockingbird play on Broadway. A friend of mine was in the cast, so I went backstage and saw Jeff Daniels, which was so cool.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from your worst boss?

Make sure that you have empathy with the people working for you. Understand that you work for them as much as they work for you. Your job is to get the obstacles out of their way, it’s not to be an obstacle in their way. People like to work at different times and in different ways, and just try and be empathetic to people’s wider situation, I think. 

I’ve been lucky. The vast majority of my bosses have been absolutely superb. But I have had a few who were much too task-orientated, rather than empowering the people on their team to do the tasks.

What’s your favorite wall decoration in your home?

There’s a painting by my mom of a dad and his lad at Middlesbrough F.C.’s old stadium. She did it just for me and my brother, and then it got on social media. She had loads of people wanting copies of it. It really resonated with the people. So yeah, that’s definitely my favorite.


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