Elite sport is experiencing massive shifts in how people pursue greater higher performance on and off the pitch, and they’re coming at a pace never before seen. I recently sat down with Tim Bezbatchenko, president of MLS club Columbus Crew, to discuss these and other changes since he started in sport. I was struck at how much his observations mirrored my own. In light of this, and informed by our work helping more than 700 teams around the world push the frontiers of what’s possible, here are seven trends we see reshaping global sport.
1. Sport is increasingly professionalized.
Competitive advantage is no longer something that happens just on the field. Clubs, organizations, and leagues must now compete globally on the business side as well as on the sporting side.
This means leveraging all their resources – from support staff, to facilities, to technology, and data – to understand the performance return from every dollar spent in every department. This awareness is changing how clubs spend their money and how they see return on investment.
Tim Bezbatchenko put this point brilliantly: “We built a $40 million facility and converted the first soccer specific stadium into the OhioHealth Performance Center – but it won’t always be new. We have this short window to leverage it.”
2. Owners are growing more sophisticated.
Emergence of sophisticated owners who want information-driven results is another trend reshaping global sport. In a change from owners of the past, the new generation sees teams as businesses, not hobbies. The huge amounts of money spent by new owners – like those at Chelsea Football Club or the Denver Broncos – tell us that they see these businesses as investments; therefore, they’ll want to know why clubs make the decisions they do and how they can improve them. This is definitely putting the onus on leaders to communicate more and more effectively.
Why this shift? Because modern sports teams are now global brands which means they’re in a global arms race. Rather than focusing only on competing with other teams in their league, owners are thinking about how their brands are competing globally.
The implications for the business as a whole are huge: people must be able to work fast and gain alignment under an engaged ownership structure that provides the resources teams need to succeed.
3. Constant evolution is an absolute necessity.
Just as Blockbuster was destroyed by Netflix, we are seeing dynasties being displaced by modernized clubs who are reshaping global sport by using innovation to unlevel the playing field. This is hard to hear sometimes, but tradition and history aren’t enough. What you did last year won’t be good enough this year because game-changing advantages are now more widely available to their competitors thanks to data and analytics. As Tim says:
“I think it’s a warning… you’re complacent when you’re on top sometimes. And you can feel like you can rely on tradition or history or your past to carry you forward, but that only goes so far. And so you have to change when you’re on top, and I think we’re going through that right now in the tech technological space. I mean, you could probably list off 20 things that have come out in the last two years from crypto and NFT blockchain, legalized sports betting, interacting with fans – it’s changing so quickly. And what we’ve learned is, we can’t do everything here as well, we only have so much bandwidth. So we need to focus on what’s important and it takes ability to collaborate with others to help decide our priorities and how we’re spending our time.”
Teams have to be constantly searching for new ways to innovate and grow. Clubs that don’t will follow the dinosaurs into oblivion.
4. Data is “un-leveling” the playing field.
Tim points out that “as the technology revolution has happened, you see the ability to do something that you could only do at a big club, where we can do it now because there’s more providers: we have access to information at our fingertips.” This means all teams have got to know how to leverage analytics to push information down and diffuse it throughout an organization. If they don’t, smarter, more proactive teams will absolutely deploy these tools to un-level the playing field.
The key is to predict performance and find efficiencies that improve decision-making everywhere – on the field, in scouting and talent identification, medical care, operations, etc. This moves teams from simply reacting to events to anticipating them. When we talk about trends reshaping global sport, this one is undeniable and, once achieved, will be incredibly powerful.
The academy is a good example. As Tim says, when you operate with a salary cap, you can’t spend your way into success. But this tech revolution lets teams know how to advance a player through the academy system, anticipating ways in which they’ll develop or grow, and make smarter, longer-term retain / release decisions.
5. Analytics is ascending as a core strength.
The real challenge and the real role of analytics is interpreting data. Data is coming so much thicker and faster than ever before – organizations are drowning in it. Facing exponentially growing data sets, teams have just too much to harness on their own. They can’t surface the value they need at speed.
This is the holy grail: taking all available information and distilling the most consequential insights to inform the best possible decisions. The ones that improve performance on and off the pitch. Understanding and communicating this intelligence across the team is essential to leveraging it.
Some teams have embraced analytics in significant ways (see Liverpool’s use of tactical analytics to support their gameplay, Chelsea’s application in their Development Academy, or Brentford’s use in recruitment), but no team has yet truly made it part of their DNA across every facet. But this is absolutely where the future lies. The opportunity is huge and the prize for those than can achieve it is even bigger.
As Tim says of Columbus, “we feel like data and analytics is one place where we can look at to be smarter and make decisions efficiently, with more information so we can get to a result” without having to spend as much on talent as their competitors. Play this out across the entire scope of operations of a major club, and you get a sense of the massive, compounding return on investment.
6. Teams are maturing their understanding of how to leverage data.
Teams are realizing they can’t do this themselves in-house to the degree they must if they’re going to be competitive; they need experts. What’s more, they’re realizing this help doesn’t happen in pockets – it takes a whole village and that requires buy-in from the top and all the way through the organization. Getting this buy-in is one of the jobs of a modern leader.
As Tim says, people work in elite sport because they want to achieve and excel, and bringing in the right help on data and analytics enables them to do that:
“We’ve seen the number of people that it requires and the manpower and the focus, and the need to constantly evolve and build upon [to develop analytics capability]. And then sometimes it can become obsolete, because of shifts either in the technology or in the industry. From the expertise, to the cost and timeline it takes to build your own, we felt like it made more sense to explore working with Kitman Labs because we can get there faster, it’s more efficient in terms of collaboration and cost.”
7. Teams are learning it matters where they get their help.
Organizations know a point solution – picking up an extra data scientist here or a piece of software there – won’t deliver the results they need. But that’s what too many vendors will give them.
Increasingly, teams want experts who can help them achieve cultural change and leverage data and analytics from the top down and across the organization. This is why Kitman Labs exists. This is our mission, our passion. We come from elite sport – as athletes and practitioners. We know how to help partners integrate it into everything they do.
For Tim and the Columbus Crew, the decision to partner with Kitman Labs came “down to the details and the fine margins”:
“We’ve problems that are credibly challenging, and they happen every day. But we need a holistic solution, where it’s not just 30 providers, and I’m stuck talking to someone different for every single problem I have… The ability to work with a world class group, with the people you have and the way you treat people; when I know you’re looking to expand and creatively solve problems across the spectrum – that’s really important.”
Thank you, Tim.