Over the past decade the world of football data has changed beyond all recognition. Once the preserve of Championship Manager obsessives and hardcore fans, data and stats have made their way firmly into the mainstream – and affect the way the game is covered, analysed and played across the world. So, how have we arrived at this point, and where next for football data?
In my opinion there are three major drivers behind the evolution and development of football data. These are:
- The changing nature of the football fan
- More platforms with more space to fill
- A quicker, more detailed data supply
I’ll cover how each of these factors have contributed individually:
The changing football fan
Throughout history, being a football fan has been associated with attendance at matches. The support for a team would be passed down from father to son through the ritual of standing on a terrace on a Saturday. The level of your support would be defined by how many games you went to and whether you supported the team home and away. Your season ticket would be your badge of honour.
Over the last 20 years this has dramatically changed. The massive increase in TV coverage of football means that interest, knowledge and fandom now no longer requires attendance at the matches. People attending games are massively in the minority of the overall number of people who claim to be football fans. This means that the expectations of football fans have changed.
This new breed of fan consumes football like a TV show, more akin to EastEnders than anything else. Coverage of football is focused on developing narratives, before, during and after the matches. There are heroes and villains, storylines and cliffhangers. In this world, data, statistics and information have a massive part to play in helping to create, shape and prolong the narratives.
More platforms, with more space to fill
To follow football, it used to be important to pick up the newspapers the day after a match. Each game would have a report, differing in size depending on its importance. Supplementing that was usually a round up page, with scores, scorers and attendances from the top handful of leagues.
Added to that you had radio coverage, with commentary of one main match and half-time and full-time round ups from the other games. If you wanted to watch a match on TV, you had the game you were given (usually, in my memory Everton vs Spurs) and then highlights of the others on Match of the Day. And if you missed your window, that was it until the next week.
Being a football fan required some level of investment to be in the right place at the right time throughout the season. The knowledge you had as a fan was very much earned. But the increasing coverage of football on TV came at the same time as an increase in the ways for media to report on it. Over a short period of time, we went from having a select number of opportunities to follow football to being able to keep abreast of the action every minute of every day, with coverage from all of the leagues around the world.
Televised football broadcasts now have longer, more in-depth shows requiring a deeper level of analysis. Traditional media have printed pull-outs with pages and pages of coverage. Even radio stations have dedicated reporters at every main game, with updates on the action up to a dozen times per game. Add to this the internet, with no restriction on space or layout.
Football has become about more than what happens on the pitch. The debate around the game has extended it to become a 24/7 topic of conversation and the media has reacted to satisfy the demands of its audience. Coverage can be tapped into regardless of location or device. You no longer follow football, it follows you.
And with this thirst for information, and proliferation of opportunity comes a desire for more in-depth information. And the world of data and stats has grown to support this. Whereas 20 years ago it would have been difficult to find out what the score was if you were out of your house, now you can find out, in real-time, how many passes a particular player has completed during a game.
A quicker, more detailed data supply
So we have a world in which the fan expects and demands more information, and the publishers can provide the space and platforms on which to consume the data. The third important step was for the data supply industry to evolve to the same level.
So over the years companies like Opta have collected more information. We’ve added new stats every year and we’ve added more detail about some of the standard pieces of information. This provides the media with new angles or interesting ways to approach their coverage.
And the industry has evolved to provide things more quickly, so that the demand for this information can be met as it happens. Years ago, sometime after the final whistle would have been quick enough, but now the supply side of the football data world has to match the demand for live information.
So, what next for football data?
As with a lot of industries with big data at their core, better analysis and presentation of this data is key to the next stage of the evolution of football data. At Opta, we speak to a lot of people who are focused on making this future a reality. Hot topics include using big data sets for predictive analytics (useful in the betting industry for modelling and setting market prices) and infographic design (useful in media and broadcast markets for making data sets more insightful to all types of fan).
Whatever the future though, it is likely to include more data rather than less. More stats, more information and more platforms to consume them on. In the world of football at least, it seems the geeks really will inherit the earth.
This is a personal perspective of Simon Banoub, director of marketing at Opta.