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AI: Driving the future of sports data

Stats Perform chief rights officer Alex Rice looks ahead following the creation of the newly-merged company.

Alex Rice

The sale of Perform Content to Vista Equity Partners and its consequent merger with US technology and data company Stats earlier this year marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of a ground-breaking business which had, of late, been somewhat overshadowed by its big-spending OTT sibling DAZN.

Perform, you may remember, was the original: the fruit of the 2007 merger of Premium TV and Inform Group which created a company that went on to develop and acquire a range of related business units, float on the stock-exchange, de-list from the stock exchange and, along the way, pioneer new approaches to sports media through innovative partnerships with the WTA Tour and Fiba.

The launch of DAZN, dubbed the Netflix of Sport on its debut in 2016, caught the sports media zeitgeist perfectly and its rapid growth led to the division of the organisation and, ultimately, the sale of Perform Content which includes the Opta, RunningBall and Watch&Bet businesses.

Vista Equity Partners paid DAZN a reported $1.2bn (€1.1bn) in cash for the company together with a minority stake in Stats Perform.

While the identity of the eventual buyer was not widely known, DAZN’s owners had gone public early on their desire to sell Perform, leaving senior management to discuss the ideal suitor.

“In the end it happened very quickly,” explained chief rights officer Alex Rice.

“The strange thing is that back in November (2018) the management team sat in a room and pieced together what we would want as a business to enable us to move forward. It wasn’t about (identifying) a buyer, just the vision and capabilities.

“For us it was about selling to (an entity) which could see what this business can be. This is an established business with lots of certainty, but it had been prevented from taking the next leap forward.”

Close to the top of the wish list was a buyer which understood the need and had the resources to invest in technology to move the data business forward. And Rice believes that the merger with Stats achieves just that.

“Stats understand the DNA of Perform and what we have been trying to achieve,” he said.

“They understand the opportunities for the business in the USA around the legalisation of gambling but also realise that doesn’t transform everything overnight. It may take 5-10 years.

“If you take all that into account, Stats is a great marriage. They had already made the investment into automated data collection and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and those were the elements which were missing.

“Broadly the businesses are very similar. We have similar operations, have similar contacts, work for some of the same leagues and have competed in the past particularly in the media space. We have a mature betting business and they are starting to get into it.”

The focus on Artificial Intelligence is central to the new proposition and Rice believes that it will play a role in adding a new dimension to the ways that fans enjoy sport.

“Right now, if you are watching a sports event you are consuming data which tells you about what has happened and that data becomes part of the deep analysis provided post game in heat maps and other things,” he explained.

“What this doesn’t tell you is what’s going to happen next. AI can tell us that by working on the probability based on data. All these factors create a story which we want to impart back to the audience, and which can, logically, create odds.

“While we can never tell the viewer with 100-per-cent certainty that X or Y will happen, AI will enable us to give them a far richer experience. It will also provide teams and the professional sector with far greater analysis of what will most likely happen if you select particular players in a team or use a certain tactic against a specific opponent.

“The big change is that AI helps us paint a picture going forward rather than with traditional stats data, which is about the past.”

As ever in business, managing change is critical to future success and, says Rice, the Stats Perform merger has delivered a sense of certainty and clear focus which had been lacking.

“As great as DAZN was for the business, there hadn’t been clarity for employees on this side of the business.

“Now the management is focussed solely on one area and whatever skillset you came into the business with you know that management is focused on supporting that area. This is the world we are in and this is what we think about when we wake up in the morning.”

Among the other things that Rice, an industry veteran despite being under 40-years-old, thinks about is the way the data rights business is developing. He fears that the current system, by which official rights to collect and monetise data are increasingly being sold exclusively to the highest bidder, could prove damaging in the long term. He believes that for governing bodies to appoint a group of official data rights partners, each paying a fair and equitable amount could be a better solution.

“Data isn’t like audio visual rights because more or less anyone can collect data and the rights are hard to police,” he said.

“The other thing is that it stifles innovation because if you are spending money on rights fees you are not spending it developing great products.

“Having more than one data source also helps the battle for integrity. If you only have one source –especially where games are not televised – you have a problem because the bad guys only have to manipulate one scout.”

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