Richard Gillis | Mind the gap

Richard Gillis, author of the new SportBusiness report, Understanding the Sports Data Challenge, explains why the gap between pure sports marketers and those with data expertise is the biggest constraint on growth in the sector.

Richard Gilis

Each consulting group, agency or tech vendor claims to have their own particular solution to sport’s Big Data challenge. So in any conversation on the subject, there comes a point when someone mentions a black box solution.

The black box is the bit of their offer they claim is proprietary and could take the form of a methodology, a computer programme or bit of tech hardware.

Like lawyers and dentists, data consultants know the value of building barriers to entry in to their specialisation: the more complex the problem, the more valuable the solution.

And that’s how the sports business is divided, between those with data expertise on the one side and generalist sports marketers on the other.

The gap between them is important, because it’s probably the biggest constraint to growth in the sport sector. Without a bit more understanding of the core concepts of data analytics, the lay majority – including those in the C-Suite – are likely to make bad decisions and leave themselves open to data literate bad actors who can hide malign or useless stuff in the algorithms safe in the knowledge that we can’t or don’t want to interrogate it further for fear of looking stupid or naive, neither of which is a good look career-wise.

The divide also feeds a pedestrian industry debate around our relationship with tech (see VAR) which quickly goes to the boring art versus science binaries in which data and evidence-based decision making is pitched at one end of a spectrum, with creativity and instinct at the other end. This is a flawed map of reality, which as always is far messier and interesting.

As research for a new SportBusiness report, I spoke to many senior people from across the divide, from senior decision-makers on the rights owner side through to the most evangelical of the data utopians.

To a person, they talk of the massive potential of Big Data to improve their organisations but that the process of getting from here to there can often feel overwhelming. Everyone has got the memo on digital transformation. But what does that really mean in reality?

The exercise allowed me to collect some useful questions that might spark a response from people working on both sides of the sports data equation.

Is sport special?

This is a question that comes back time and again. Is the job of digital transformation at an NFL franchise, Premier League football club or a major event-owning governing body unique to sport? Or, can a solution be cut and pasted from other industries? Some of the big consulting groups want to shoehorn sport in to strategy templates that have worked in other sectors, with a bit of make do and mend around the edges. The sport specialist agencies reject this approach, saying that context is critical and sport is special. Which one is right?

Are fans the same as customers?

Sports fans will expect a similar level of service as they get elsewhere, particularly when it comes to being served digital products and services where even small bumps in UX start to irritate even the most ardent supporter. This leads to a trickier question: when they are boiled down to bare digital personas, do less avid fans (e.g. big eventers) exhibit the same characteristics as every other retail customer or car buyer? When tribalism declines as a factor, UX be the key differentiator between sports. Those rights owners which can afford to invest in data expertise will pull away from the rest, and – spoiler alert – the rich will get richer.

Can sport trust the FAANGs?

Google, Facebook and Amazon have generated massive walled gardens of personal data, giving them huge advantages in terms of customer insight. Sport drives a lot of traffic their way and among the executives I spoke to there is a tangible shift in attitude. The initial excitement of the FAANGs’ entry into sport has given way to concern about what happens next. Are they partners or frenemies?

Is data ownership the right model?

Sport’s sponsorship and media markets tend to be zero sum games: if you win, I lose. If you get a sponsor, it’s a sponsor that doesn’t pay me. This is true at every level, from Fifa v Uefa through to individual rights owners within nations or within and between sports. This is how the market for sport has grown up and is how rights owners are approach the job of building customer data.

What is the alternative? What would happen if instead of competing against each other to own fan data, Sport Inc came together to aggregate it, giving the entire sport sector huge FAANG-like insights into the needs and wants of sports fans? It won’t happen in my lifetime, laughs one high profile sports leader. It should, but it won’t.

Please contact sales to find out more about the Understanding the Sports Data Challenge report.

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