Let's say that you are an analytically-minded fan of a football team. You care about them doing well, and you think smart use of data will be part of that. What should you be on the look-out for: who they hire internally, which data providers they use, or what third-parties they partner with?
Most usually, the answer to that would be who they hire internally. The creation of Liverpool's research department has contributed to that, as has the (related) increasing number of PhDs on football club payrolls. With City Football Group following Liverpool's lead in building out a big department, and Manchester United hiring a director of data science, some clubs are still heading that way.
But that's not the majority of clubs.
On Monday, Sarah Rudd, former-StatDNA (who were bought by Arsenal) vice-president of analytics, posted some job adverts. They were for Blue Crow Analytics, where she is now vice-president, an offshoot of Blue Crow Sports Group set up this summer. [2023 Note: Rudd has since left Blue Crow to co-found a football consultancy, SRC] The 'About Us' section of the job ads reads:
Blue Crow Analytics is a sports technology company focused on helping teams and athletes achieve sporting results through the use of technology, data and analytics.
The company was founded in the summer of 2021 by executives and investors in the technology and sports sector with experience across a variety of sports including football/soccer, baseball, basketball, motor racing and esports.
With the American element (the company is Houston-based) and reference to multi-sport experience, a resemblance to another third-party consultancy, Zelus Analytics, struck me. Whether this is what Blue Crow are actually going for remains to be seen, but it's worth a rundown on the model.
Zelus work with a limited number of teams per division in a number of different sports. They go hard on the R&D and the high-technical hires, like a "we hire the physicists so you don't have to" approach (although I doubt they'll put that tag-line on the business cards). A write-up in The Athletic is here.
This kind of high-end, investor-backed (more on that in a moment) consultancy is an interesting evolution to the industry. But it's not just in the third-party space that this evolution has been happening.
At the same time, over in data provider world, you have an increasing number of companies working with data in an exciting way. Opta and STATS (the artist formerly known as Prozone) merged to create Stats Perform, a company with extensive experience with event and tracking data under one roof; StatsBomb are producing a sort of event/tracking-lite hybrid data feed with freezeframes for each event they collect; the iteration of computer vision has led to numerous companies developing tracking data from single-camera video footage, reducing cost and increasing availability.
So where -- as an analytically-interested, innovation-hungry football fan -- would you look for your football club to be investing its money?
In the interests of transparency, I should say that I work for Twenty3 Sport, who I guess you'd class as a 'third-party' in these conversations. Football clubs should obviously be investing their money there. But besides that...
To take the clubs' perspective first, the ones at the top are humongous revenue generators, which means they could almost certainly afford to hire a few good people themselves.
An advantage of having people in-house, from the point of people doing the work, is that they (should) know the problems that need dealing with very well. They're working frequently with the people whose lives they need to improve, and that could lead to better work.
Hiring your own people also means that you get to keep all the work for yourself. The flip-side of that is that it might be more likely that your workers and their work are siloed from other ideas.
As well as this, not only is there the oft-mentioned factor about needing to get the internal politics right; but to do the 'innovation', data hires need time away from the hectic schedule of professional football. They don't need to be completely disconnected, but nor do you want them to be doing a ton of work before and after each matchday. If you can't offer them that space, you need to lower the expectations for the innovative, new stuff they can do.
An advantage for outside third-parties, on the other hand, is that they'd be separated from that day-to-day hecticness (assuming you haven't hired them specifically for that purpose).
On top of that, it's possible that with multiple clients consultancies could build up some sort of economies of scale, and that dealing in multiple sports -- or just with multiple clubs -- could help spark more ideas.
But on the other hand, you've gotta chase the money. How much R&D you can do will depend on either how many clients you can get or how much outside investment you attract.
The scale of outside investment presumably varies a lot and matters a great deal. As far as the new Blue Crow on the block goes, nothing about the analytics venture seems to be in the public domain, other than investment or advisement from Marc Reeves (former Nike, NFL, IMG executive; investor and/or advisor to, among other things, Leeds United; involvement known purely through an unrelated press release). Zelus meanwhile are backed by RedBird Capital, according to The Athletic's write-up, a behemoth who have a majority stake in Toulouse FC (via 'Redbird FC') and minority stakes in Fenway Sports Group (who own Liverpool) and reportedly Málaga CF.
There is no particular reason for that previous paragraph in this newsletter other than it's an area I don't know much about but seems pretty interesting and important. Toulouse FC are the only football club that Zelus have publicly (as of this May) named as working with... because they're backed by the company who own a majority stake there. Will they also do work with Liverpool now RedBird have invested in FSG? The stake RedBird have in Málaga is reportedly much smaller, but what about them? Will Marc Reeves' Leeds United connection (a club whose director of football, Victor Orta, was on a panel at the recent StatsBomb conference, so presumably open to this kind of thing) get an in for Blue Crow there? Those last three sentences are all mere speculation, but you can imagine how these connections might be able to be leveraged.
However, if, as a consultancy, you're dealing with multiple different teams in multiple different sports, that could present another problem. How long will you have to spend getting to grips with lots of different data sources, repeating the same processes over and over again because your new client uses X provider instead of Y.
That last problem brings us to the data providers themselves. They will, of course, just be focusing on their own data, so have an advantage on that front. In an ideal world, providers would be the experts in their data, and be able to package it up and productise it and experiment with it in interesting ways.
The fact that the data provider space has become increasingly competitive also raises the chance that they'll do this. Cost is a central differentiator, as are things like accuracy and ease of use, but they're not exciting differentiators. But if the provider can give you something new and useful, something football-intuitive, that fits easily and immediately into your workflow? That's attractive.
On the other hand, the fact that data providers need to sell to a breadth of customers might mean that their research is limited. Anything interesting that they want to add to their data needs to be put through a proper product cycle, with all sorts of quality checks and engineering checks. All of that will take time, and if it wouldn't be enough of an attractive proposition to enough customers, that process may not be worth it.
Where would you go?
So, if you were an analytically-minded fan, or a decision-maker at a club, or someone looking to work in the industry, what area would you focus on?
If you're one of the elite, it makes sense to get ahead of the game and get a department set up internally, on the condition that you retain that knowledge. There's no point in the exclusivity benefits of an internal department if you don't make sure you still have it if someone leaves.
However, most clubs are not yet at the point where they're hiring data people and allowing them large amounts of time for research projects. For the majority, it probably makes sense to choose data provider smartly as much as cost allows (and to be honest about whether the shiny things in the data will get used) but then to make strategic use of third-parties.
Those third-parties could be consultancies like Zelus or Blue Crow, but they could also be platform-based like (yes) Twenty3, Analytics FC, SciSports (all three of whom also do bespoke work of some variety as well). And then there's the non-platform, non-Big Investor-backed consultancies of varying shapes and sizes.
Using these would allow you to flex your capacity for 'analytics' as needed, without hiring full-time. As a club, this can also enable you to build up an internal knowledge bank if you make sure that the third-parties work and/or findings get stored somewhere people will remember them.
On top of this, assuming that you're not their first customer, third-parties are also likely to have processes in place that mean you can skip some of the tricky 'training wheels' stage of setting up an analytics department. With the frequency of change that happens at clubs, this might be helpful for new managers or directors of football who need work doing quickly while they and their team get settled in/fully hired.
Sadly for fans, because many of these deals or partnerships don't get made public, you may not be able to keep up with how analytically-innovative your club is being. You're even less likely to know what work's actually being done too.
But from a wannabe-professional's point of view, it might not be a club job that you want to aim for, the fun stuff might be in a data provider or third-party instead. For the time being, at least.