Portfolio managers Alison Porter, Graeme Clark and Richard Clode delve into how technology is transforming every aspect of football.

  Key takeaways:

  • Technology’s influence in football is increasing, supported by the long-term secular drivers of tech adoption through Moore’s Law and the accelerating shift to the cloud.
  • Artificial intelligence is being driven by data analytics, cloud infrastructure and machine learning, which has broad applications including aiding match decision making and improving team performance.
  • More efficient data transmission via 5G is revolutionising the viewer experience – changing how we engage and consume football.

Technology is taking share across many sectors and this is set to accelerate in the next wave of disruption, with the key enablers being software, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT). But how is a sport like football (soccer) being transformed by innovation and technology?

The recent 2020 UEFA European Football Championship (Euro 2020), delayed a year due to COVID-19, seems a good opportunity to explore that question. Apart from VAR (Video Assisted Referee), technology is used to gather data on football matches and training sessions through multiple mechanisms, including performance analysis software such as SBG MatchTracker, GPS (Global Positioning Systems) data from wearable technology providers such as Catapult, or from video technology provided by startups like Bepro, which measures and aims to improve team performance.

It’s all about the data

Data is being captured, analysed and applied in multiple ways within football. An example is how Liverpool Football Club used data AI and analytics to turn them into a UEFA Champions League and English Premier League-winning side. Football fans will be familiar with Jürgen Klopp, Virgil Van Dijk, and Mo Salah but not many have heard of Ian Graham. He can be described as a technologist who has arguably been the true architect of Liverpool's recent success. A theoretical physicist by training, Graham is the club’s Director of Research and his team runs AI models and algorithms on data collected on Liverpool and other teams. Graham’s model was instrumental in Jürgen Klopp’s appointment as manager. Klopp had taken Borussia Dortmund in the German league to second place in 2013/14 but the club finished a disappointing seventh in the 2014/15 season. Data analysis intimated that Borussia should have finished second statistically but were simply unlucky in a number of key games. The models also suggested the signings of various star players including Philippe Coutinho and Mo Salah, and that Salah and existing player Robert Firmino would link up very well.

Another example is how Belgian and Manchester City star player Kevin De Bruyne used data and analytics as a key part of his contract renegotiations, without using an agent. De Bruyne reportedly employed Analytics FC, a specialist sports analytics company, to pull analytical data on how Manchester City's team was set up for the future, including data points like the age profile of the squad, the number of playing minutes of those players by age, and the contracts of key players. The data also looked at past, present and projected future performances, and their relative importance to the team based on calculated contribution value. For attacking midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne this would have included an analysis of actual and expected goals, assists and chances created. The data-driven contract negotiation led to a four-year contract  extension rumoured to be worth £83 million at the time.

Underpinned by Moore’s Law and the cloud

Football is a low-scoring game of random events. Small efficiency gains, or marginal improvements may bring material rewards. Underlying all of that are two founding themes in technology. First, Moore's Law and second, the accelerated shift to cloud computing.

Moore's Law, making things smaller, cheaper, faster, better, provides more efficient tools for measurement and digitisation. Coined in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, it is the ability to roughly double the number of transistors that can fit onto a microchip every two years. The principle is that we can expect the speed and capability of computers to increase every couple of years, and costs will fall.

Coupled with this is the availability of high-speed internet access with affordable and fast cloud compute (computation and processing). Cloud infrastructure has democratised and proliferated cheap compute, enabling software companies like Bepro and Analytics FC to focus adding value to the analytics, measurement, data quality and algorithms without having to buy expensive servers and storage themselves. The cost of basic cloud compute has collapsed over the last 15 years.

VR gaming football_tile, tech

‘On-and-off pitch’ rivalry

Akin to deep rivalries in football, such as England versus Germany, fierce competition also exists within the tech sector with three dominant cloud providers battling it out in the cloud space: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

Amazon offers cloud infrastructure in data storage and analysis, as well as machine learning models via SageMaker through its AI platform for American football (NFL), basketball and the German football premier league, Bundesliga, among others. Technology has increased the interactivity of the viewing experience in real-time and the generation of customised content. During a Bundesliga game, viewers can view the expected probability of a goal, the difficulty of a certain scenario or a shot or a chance that a striker had, how a favourite player is doing, and how teams are positioning themselves offensively and defensively.

Meanwhile, turning our attention to England, manager Gareth Southgate was a guest speaker last year at Google's annual cloud event, Cloud Next. Having partnered with Google, Southgate has abandoned the notepad and pencil approach. Now, video clips of players are fed straight into the manager's iPad within 12 hours, tactics, training sessions are now all stored in the cloud. An interesting fact gleaned from the data was that England took their penalties much faster than other teams and factored this into their training.

How sport is consumed is changing

The cloud, streaming, augmented reality, virtual reality, and 5G are all converging to enable the ‘gamification’ of the football experience. Having a 360-degree viewing angle, ‘virtually’ sitting in the best seats in the house, using a split screen to view statistics or having a shared view with friends all adds to the gamifying experience. The key advantage of 5G versus 4G is latency ie, how fast the network responds to a request. In theory, latency can come down to one millisecond with 5G (around 30 to 50 milliseconds with 4G currently). 5G is also far more efficient in data transmission, with about three to five times the spectral efficiency of 4G, which enables much cheaper data and streaming. It also allows a 5G base station to connect with significantly more points or devices, reducing the chance of losing (data) reception or signal.

Technology is also transforming and driving viewing preferences. Technology is not just changing football on the pitch but also how it is being consumed. A real explosion in viewing figures has been driven by streaming. Wireless and video technologies provider Interdigital predicted that in 2022, 82% of total internet traffic will be from video viewing. Generation Z (youngsters who have lived with tech all their lives) prefer shorter content formats, and are more likely to watch Kevin De Bruyne ‘playing’ in FIFA 21 gaming videos than a real world 90 minutes match. Live streaming platform for gamers, Twitch reported a record 6.3 billion hours was streamed and viewed in the first quarter this year. To re-engage younger generations broadcasters will need to provide a much more immersive, interactive viewing experience by leveraging the key technologies of 5G, augmented and virtual reality, the cloud, and streaming.

Conclusion

Technology’s influence in football is increasing, with the extent and pace of that transformation supported by the long-term secular drivers of tech adoption through Moore’s Law and the accelerating shift to the cloud. These two key underlying themes are driving AI, which is in turn reliant on data analytics, cloud infrastructure and machine learning. Football is yet another example of how tech’s disruptive power and continuing innovation is permeating and improving our lives and providing solutions, while helping to drive share gains for select companies that fully embrace technology.

 

Glossary

Machine learning: a branch of artificial intelligence and computer science, which uses data and algorithms to imitate the way that humans learn, gradually improving its accuracy.

Spectral efficiency: the amount of data transmitted over a given spectrum or bandwidth with minimum transmission errors.