Digital transformation now vital to the beautiful game

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Soccer is known globally by traditionalists as ‘the beautiful game’. But as digital technology continues to impact all aspects of life, how is it affecting one of the world’s favorite sports?

Soccer today is big business. According to Deloitte, the aggregate revenues for the richest 20 soccer clubs rose 12 percent to €7.4 billion (£5.5 billion) in 2015/16, a new record.

With this increase in revenue, has also come an increase in sophistication by soccer clubs, including their use of technology. One of the pioneers was Italy’s AC Milan which engaged a UK-based software developer nearly 20 years ago to create a tool that would have a profound impact on player performance and career longevity.

The software monitored the distances players covered in training, running speeds they attained, relevant muscle deterioration and subsequent recovery speeds after training sessions and matches. It was, in effect, the first significant use of data analytics in soccer. AC Milan subsequently became known for having players remain at peak performance levels late into their 30s, markedly longer than most clubs managed.

Athletes transformed

Whether traditional fans like it or not, soccer has changed from being a “just a game” into being a multibillion dollar arm of the entertainment industry. Players have become assets in which clubs invest and hope to see a decent return. To achieve that goal, professional clubs have been turning to technology. These include Big Data and analytics solutions like Scout7, which is a cloud-based soccer database that over 150 clubs use to identify and evaluate potential new players.

The tool tracks player performance, match statistics and more, and has a database of over 100,000 full-game video recordings for scouts to watch. It adds about 4,000 new matches every month. For each match, the platform captures between 1,600 and 2,000 individual actions such as shots on target, completed passes, tackles and goals for evaluation and analysis. This type of digital solution can help smaller clubs steal a march on their richer rivals.

The software is delivering clear results. Using Scout7 for analysis, recent Premier League champions Leicester City signed a player who was instrumental in their championship win for a paltry £400,000. He is valued at least £25 million today, which is some return on investment! So it is perhaps not surprising to find major clubs in all of Europe’s top leagues using similar data analysis tools to scout and recruit players.

The growing importance of digital fan engagement

Digital transformation of large, multinational corporations also means changing the way they interact with their customers (fans in this case) or other brand ambassadors. While individual players might get in occasional trouble for an errant Instagram post, the clubs themselves are leveraging their global reach and engaging with fans in all new ways – particularly with social media.

Fans today, and the way they interact with the clubs they support, are generating huge data trails. Progressive soccer clubs have recognized that and begun to use that data to tie fans into the club, build marketing momentum around campaigns and use it to create big-scale brand exposure. Paul Pogba’s first season back at Manchester United may not have been the anticipated success on the field, but off it, his unveiling as a United player was 2016’s dominant social media campaign in pretty much any sport.

Italian side AS Roma used Reddit to become the world’s “most fan-connected” soccer club, engaging fans around the world to curate and publish content on its new digital platform. Real Madrid, arguably the world’s biggest soccer club, made the digital transformation shift to become effectively a content marketing entity, again putting its fans at the center of its communications.

More devices, more opportunities

Clubs have also utilized technology to enhance the in-stadium fan experience, recognizing that despite the big TV money ploughed into soccer, matchday revenues are still a vital money-generator for most soccer clubs. It encompasses ticket revenues, catering, merchandise and other on-the-day expenditure.

Soccer stadiums today are engaging with the digitally-enabled fan using internet-connected TV and LED video boards that display tailored content and advertising. Stadium connectivity has been improved, using high density Wi-Fi and 4G, to let fans use mobile devices for social media, in-match apps, real-time statistics and more. Further to that, matchday mobile applications can also be enabled, such as cashless payments, location-based services and other offerings, all of which can be pushed to fans’ devices.

Orange has worked with Ligue Un soccer clubs in France to digitally transform their stadia. Today, the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon and the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille are prime examples of the connected stadium and provide fans with a whole new experience.

On the field, technology has finally found its place with goal line sensors indicating to referees whether or not the ball has crossed the line and resulted in a goal – off the field, digital technology is opening up a whole new world of possibilities for the beautiful game.

Read about how Orange supplied the connectivity for Euro 2016 in France and the Lyon stadium overhaul. Also read about how the Compagnie du Mont Blanc uses big data analytics to plan for the skiing season. 

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.