We're going to talk about television. We're going to talk about data. And we're going to ask what the definition of 'fun' is. It must be the Get Goalside newsletter.
Slime and shot speed
Ah, to be American. Able to watch Premier League 3pm kick-offs on TV, understand jokes about New Jersey, and watch the first appearance of the 'Data Zone' streaming option on NBC's Peacock.
Liverpool's comeback against Arsenal at Anfield was the first of four matches in April to get this option on NBC's streaming platform, which combines the match footage (on a slight delay to most live feeds) with event and tracking data.
Being in England, I didn't get to see it, but this isn't the first time that sports broadcasts have been 'augmented' like this. It's just the latest in a growing line. Over this side of the Atlantic, BT Sport's app won an industry innovation award of some sort in 2021 for its 'Hype Mode' option, which had some of the features that you can see on the Data Zone screenshot (ball speed on shots, 2D tracking data pitch map) as well as some energetic animation.
If you're less fussed about numbers but like cartoons, the NHL has you covered this year. Partnering with Disney, it's done some stuff to take the tracking data of the players and pucks and animate it in a style that I assume I'd recognise if I was a couple of decades younger.
(This follows a proud American lineage that brought you the NFL's Nickelodeon coverage, although as far as I know that one is just graphics work and presentation, no data).
Is this trend more to do with the progression of tracking data, US money and techieness, or continuing fears about how young audiences engage in traditional sports? I dunno, but it's probably a bit of all three.
The latter two speak for themselves, but this being a data newsletter it's worth touching on the tracking data point a little. Event data can be engaging and visceral (check out the intro to this video on some La Liga graphics), but it's much easier and arguably requires less imagination with tracking data, and it opens up more doors. There's more data, and to paraphrase the old IBM line, no-one ever got fired by telling people running stats.
And yet. Do these implementations in football know who, or what, they're for?
Now, in fairness to the people putting these things together: 1) they're treading new ground 2) even the people running football don't tend to know who, or what, they're for. (It is quite amusing that FIFA bigwig-types have pivoted from the idea that matches should be shorter, bc attention spans, to focusing on the dummy spectre of time-wasting and the idea that matches should be longer. In a sideways sense they're correct: my attention span for their time-wasting is quite short).
When you start thinking about this question in one area it starts to crop up everywhere. Who is the Data Zone for? Whose viewing experience is it aimed at improving? Who, other than industry professionals, was 'Hype Mode' for? Who, FIFA, is going to be more attracted to football matches by there being more added time at the end of matches?
I'm not really asking football rightsholders for something as clear-focused as a slime cannon-wielding, Patrick Star-starring kids show NFL broadcast. I am, more than anything, asking the question because I want to wonder out loud about the answer.
The latest episode of the Unofficial Partner podcast couldn't have come at a more convenient moment in time for this newsletter. On the subject of what sport can learn about customer data from other industries, guest Claire Kelly (formerly of Sainsbury's) was asked how the supermarket chain thinks about their customers.
"One thing I'd say as a starting point is they certainly don't segment by demographics or gender like perhaps we do in the sports industry," Kelly explained. After giving a couple of different examples of shopper profiles, she continued: "And so Sainsbury's would segment on needs and motivations and then you'd layer profiles around that when it moved into marketing and targeting strategy."
So let's play armchair marketer about armchair fans for a moment. What different profiles are there? (If you want some slightly less off-the-cuff fan segmentation, the European Club Association split fans into six groups in a report here, although that was about fans in general, not solely TV viewers).
I've come up with a few:
- Background-noisers: people who tend to do other things while the football is on. This could be reading, cleaning, working, gaming, flicking through TikTok.
- Home-stadiumers: people who are watching the match primarily as a substitute for being at the stadium. They'll usually be a fan of one of the teams, and be invested in the action.
- TV-eventers: people who watch the match more for social or 'cultural' reasons, because it's the thing that friends will be talking about. The 90-minutes of football is more like watching a film or HBO episode for them, although they may still be invested in one of the teams.
- Football-studiers: A small subset, but one who'll be overrepresented enough in Get Goalside's readership to deserve a mention. People who watch the game for some kind of educational or academic purpose. Probably some overlap with a hipster/nerdy niche of TV-eventers.
Unless you're going to offer a customisable experience or multiple streaming options (the latter of which is happening a little more (see also: the Manningcast)), the broadcasting experience needs to cater across these different groups. This is probably why half-time and full-time punditry is the way it is: as much as the football-studiers may hate it, they talk about the talking points to serve the TV-eventers and the background-noisers, and to give the TV-stadiumers all the slo-mo replays they need to be angry about whatever they're inevitably angry about.
Let's flick back to the Data Zone screenshot and see which of these profiles it might be appealing to. There are, I'd say, five features on the image: a player name, the speed of their shot, team running stats, 'top players' running stats, and a 2D overhead pitch map. There's also one feature-by-elimination kinda thing: the reduced pitch size.
Does any of this help the background-noisers? Yes: the name tag, and possibly the pitch map. Does anything appeal to the TV-stadiumers? The shot speed might make the viewing experience feel a little more visceral I think, particularly if it can visually differentiate between a screaming fast shot and a particularly tame one. But the surrounding stats take away space from the pitch, which might be a worse experience for them.
For TV-eventers and football-studiers, the choice of stats is where the success would live or die, I think. TV-eventers probably care more about the actual action than the sideshow, so taking away pitch space feels like it would be worse for them. Maybe it could be rescued if the stats bring out narratives that everyone's going to be talking about. Football-studiers will want to see the pitch for different reasons, but the stuff around the edges might be useful to them if it's high-quality.
The aim has to be being 'entertaining'. Or, to use another word, 'fun'. But what is 'fun'?
Subscribing to and supporting Get Goalside, that's what
The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'fun' as...
'Fun' is important, but hard to capture, and there's often a tension between people steeped in the traditions of a sport and people who, well, don't find the traditions that fun. Cricket's Twenty20 format is an obvious example. For a footballing one, the recent storm in a teacup around the WSL official Twitter account's tweet of a Barbie meme is a timely example (the Barbie movie meme-train was joined by the official Women's Super League account, uncertainty about the suitability of comparing women's footballers to Barbies was had by some, tweet was deleted, Discourse ensued).
I liked Flo Lloyd-Hughes' tweet about it:
Too busy to properly engage in the Barbie discourse but I will say, when we think about making women’s football culturally relevant, engaging in an internet meme and riding on the coat tails of a huge Hollywood film that has cultural cache isn’t the worst idea in the world imo - @FloydTweet [tweet]
As much as we might like to think so, people don't necessarily follow sports because of the intrinsic qualities that it has. In part it's about whose friends are into it. For example, people like making memes and if some fire memes (see, Get Goalside can be 'fun') are made around a sport then it helps people engage.
(Related notes: Football Beyond Borders recently released a report, approaching a year on from England's Euros triumph, that suggests inner-city teenage girls in England still aren't that engaged in women's football. This seems all the more concerning considering that eight of the Women's Super League's 12 teams come from three cities (London, Manchester, Liverpool). The latest Unofficial Partner podcast episode also featured Finn Bradshaw who spoke (among other things) about his time at Cricket Australia where initial assumptions around marketing women's cricket were that the fans would mainly be women, but that the first people buying tickets were male cricket fans who had daughters. Observationally, I think this applies to women's football too; but to what extent does the daughter whose dad buys them a ticket when they're seven ends up buying their own ticket when they're 17).
Clearly, though, 'fun' is different for different people. However, there must be some commonalities which can be applied across groups. For example, in a more general sporting sense, people have different levels of capacity for enjoying frenetic action and random outcomes, but sports have a tendency to try and balance themselves somewhere between two poles.
A level of comfort or togetherness is probably a common component of fun, thinking of why warm-up acts exist in live shows and why football chants rarely take off unless a critical mass of chanters is reached. Being good at something usually helps make it fun too (or, at least, being bad is often one of the things that puts a roadblock on fun), although I'm not sure what 'being good' at watching sport means.
Let's think about how this applies to the made-up TV viewer segments. For background-noisers and TV-eventers to be familiar with what's going on they might need to be reminded who people are and what the stakes are. It brings them together with the slightly more knowledgeable fans that are watching, and catches them up on things they might have missed.
Think about a sport that's gotten a lot of hype recently, in Formula One. Their on-screen graphics show the current driver order and rotate through different sets of stakes quite regularly: gap between drivers, fastest lap, number of pit stops. It doesn't make use of the fancy tracking data but honestly, if we're adding new graphics to TV broadcasts then the league table should probably be one of them (but keep a special design for traditional 'As Things Stand' moments pls).
Use a momentum chart or xG timeline or shot map or something. Probably a momentum chart. I reckon it would appeal to TV-stadiumers, who want the emotional reinforcement of the momentum being behind/against their team; it serves as a talking point for TV-eventers; it helps background-noisers get caught up on what the match has been like while their focus has been elsewhere.
As for the stats themselves, could there be some use in comparing a player's match figure to their season average? Or to other players in the league? The TV-stadiumer would probably get value from knowing more about one of their players; it'd serve as a benchmark for more casual TV-eventers or background-noisers; depending on the context, football-studiers might get something from it too.
If you've found this interesting then I thank you for reading this far. I dunno what I'm talking about but it's interesting.
One day these things will likely settle down and a new visual language of broadcasts will be established. I kinda suspect that what gets added to main TV broadcasts will be quite minimal and uninvasive (look at how little space current scorebugs take up and how unobtrusive graphic-generated ads are) but maybe the tech will move towards more customisable options. Who knows.
For the moment, here's to a true Hall-of-Famer piece of on-broadcast data graphics (which, it turns out, arrived at us via hockey pucks).