Continuing our review of sports news, the recent BBC headline “Data experts are becoming football’s best signings” highlights how more clubs are leveraging data scientists and greater access to new technology in a bid to win more games. From our conversations with clubs worldwide, this is absolutely what organizations are doing, but the bigger question is “Why are they doing it?”
In a word, economics.
Because of COVID-19, clubs can’t spend millions on new talent, so they’re looking to seize the most leverage from limited resources. This really makes the days of Paul Pogba’s £95 million transfer or Joao Felix’s £113 million transfer the rare old times because now, for fractions of such sums, teams can pick up analytical talent and tech and achieve better return from the players they already have.
It doesn’t take a mathematics PhD to see the rationale driving the economics of Performance Intelligence: a club that can’t spend £50 million on a new player may be entirely willing to spend £100,000 to maximize those it already has, i.e. harnessing a club’s data to develop stronger formations on the pitch, developing a youth talent to full potential, or anticipating and mitigating injuries during congestion chains. Doing so empowers cash-strapped clubs to realize greater marginal benefits relative to the cost and possibly with less risk. It’s also worth mentioning the economics of Performance Intelligence work year-around; clubs can hire talented experts or bring in more capable technology any time of the season instead of waiting for transfer windows.
The Race for Data Expertise
As the BBC points out, we’re seeing the economics of Performance Intelligence play out in a particular way with clubs’ greater investments in data scientists. Manchester City’s signing of data expert Laurie Shaw last year certainly grabbed headlines, but less high-profile hires are happening across the world of elite sport, at organizations large and small. As AFC Bournemouth Trevor Watkins recently observed:
Having access to people who can understand that data is critical… [is] the most under-rated feature of football.
He’s right, and as the Performance Intelligence arms race intensifies, the competition for this expertise will be no less fierce than for on-field talent. It may not take place on the pitch, but that’s where the winners will see return on their investment.
Yes, but economical investments in tech and talent alone won’t ensure performance.
The economics of Performance Intelligence may empower teams to bring on more technology and hire highly capable analysts, but simply having the tools or talent won’t automatically lead to higher performance on the pitch. In the age of Performance Intelligence, successful clubs will be those that align themselves around their data to strengthen their instincts. They’ll make system-level changes to how they operate in the day-to-day, from the boardroom to the changing room. This is because, in the end, winning matches isn’t about economics, it’s about performance. Clubs that keep this in mind will be better positioned to leverage the former to achieve the latter.