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Insight: How analysing ‘the beautiful game’ has changed for digital age

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME: Gathering information and stats for a growing worldwide football audience.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
THE BEAUTIFUL GAME: Gathering information and stats for a growing worldwide football audience. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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It is 11am on a Wednesday morning in Leeds.

Two twenty-something males are glued to a TV screen in an office, both fixated on a top-flight Japanese football match that is being beamed back to them.

One is following the home team’s every move, his colleague the away side.

Each is frantically tapping away at a keyboard whilst at the same time inputting data using a mouse.

Granted, this is not your stereotypical activity in an office.

But then again, this is not a normal office environment.

Keyboard checking: Opta Sports staff in Leeds.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Keyboard checking: Opta Sports staff in Leeds. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

This is Perform Group’s centre, situated in the heart of Leeds, and is the hub for the rapidly-growing sports data company.

The group provides live, detailed sports data via Opta Sports, which falls under the umbrella of Perform Content.

Here, hundreds of members of staff occupy the plush offices to do the ‘dirty work’ behind the sports statistics we see on TV, online and in print.

They log every single incident that goes on in the vast majority of football games played here and abroad as well as other sports, including baseball and rugby.

Yes, we are investing in new techniques, but the human-based collection system is very much the core of our business and is the most effective approach to getting high-quality information.

Simon Farrant

All manner of statistics are recorded, checked, verified and then logged on to swathes of databases.

This raw data is then turned into tangible statistics and facts that are farmed out to all the major media organisations across the world, including Sky, BBC and NBC.

Want to find out how many crosses Kieran Trippier has put into the area that have led to goals this season? Opta can tell you that.

Wish to find out who has scored the most Premier League goals from outside the area this term? It can take one of their analysts less than a minute (it is Kevin de Bruyne with five, by the way).

The aforementioned loggers do not simply mark down when there are goals and bookings in matches.

On one screen they record, via a touch-sensitive mouse, the position on the field where a player touches the ball and repeat the sequence for the entirety of the game.

Not only that, they also have to describe the nature of a pass; for instance if it was a through-ball or a crossfield pass.

This hugely-detailed and thorough recording is done for every single game the staff here observe, regardless of whether it is the Champions League final or a Cypriot Women’s First Division game.

It is this attention to detail that has seen Opta’s stock rise considerably, and with it the number of workers needed to shift through the workload.

The company, which employs 2,500 staff worldwide, has had a presence in Leeds since 2012 and such has been the rise of the industry and thirst for information of this kind, that they now occupy six floors at their plush city centre offices in Park Row.

Simon Farrant, director of marketing at Perform Group, says the company has grown massively in recent years but admits very few people realise this information is gathered by people working in Leeds.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “I think it’s a bit of an underground story, certainly here in Leeds.

“We’re one of the bigger offices and with SkyBet here in the city as well, there are lots of companies in that sports/digital space.

“But it’s not just about a load of computers watching football games and pumping this stuff out.

“We’ve tried that and computers don’t know the difference between a pull-back and a long ball, for example.

“The most effective and accurate and consistent way of recording data is by using people that love sport.

“Yes, we are investing in new techniques, but the human-based collection system is very much the core of our business and is the most effective approach to getting high-quality information.”

Although it covers other sports, there is no doubting the vast majority of its resources are poured into football.

Comprehensive, pre-match statistic packs act as vital dossiers for many commentators at Premier League games and these are sent out to the media around 48 hours before a game.

There is also a system whereby organisations requesting an answer to a certain statistic-related query are given a response as soon as possible.

As well as forging a reputation for market leaders in what they do, Perform Group is not afraid to try new ideas.

Recently the expected goals (xG) system was rolled out which measures the quality of each chance in a game and the likelihood of a goal being scored.

Opta analysed more than 300,000 shots and a number of different variables to create the xG metric.

It is the statistic that started cropping up on Match of the Day earlier this season, and despite coming in for some initial criticism, has since been adopted into the mainstream.

Perform Group does not strike you as a company that stands still and they are always looking for the next development with a move into the sports subscription market in countries such as Japan and Germany already paying dividends.

Despite their huge advances in working in collaboration with the media, it is the group’s work with professional clubs that shows how much data is truly valued in sport nowadays.

Over the past few years, more and more clubs have come round to the idea of using data to improve in-house performance as well as enhance their scouting network.

Global clubs such as Manchester City are well-known for their faith in statistics and are keen users of analytics in almost every age group. Farrant believes that the data being recorded and manipulated in centres like the one in Leeds is helping clubs make more rationale decisions and, therefore, improve the quality of product.

He claims that sports data consumption is not only here to stay but is only going to get more influential.

He added: “We aren’t suggesting that data should replace all the stuff that clubs have been good at for years.

“Clubs have had really high-quality scouting networks and data shouldn’t replace them. But it can enhance the work they are doing.

“Rather than sending 30 scouts around the world to find a left-back, using this data can help you massively narrow down options and streamline that process.

“In terms of scouting, the approach is about finding diamonds in places you wouldn’t normally look.

“Clubs understand they can’t just rely on old-school football men any more, because other people are catching up.

“Even players themselves are comparing each other’s stats using our data and that shows the power of it.”