Alan Pace | Football must address its technology problem

Alan Pace, managing partner at sports investment firm ALK Capital and former chief executive of Real Salt Lake, explains why disruptive technology is making the current transfer window the most digitally-connected ever.

At a time when you can be approved for a bank loan online, filling in every form and scanning all documentation via a mobile phone, it may surprise people from outside the football industry to learn that multi-million-dollar football transfer deals are still being struck this month using fax machines and paper deal sheets.

When the transfer window proverbially slams shut at 11pm on Monday, October 5, there will be big-money moves falling at the final hurdle because the paperwork hasn’t been filed in time, or because clubs, players and agents haven’t been able to connect.

You’d think that in 2020, a year that has forced all businesses and industries to embrace connected working, there must be a better way. And there is.

But as we’ve seen with the reluctant, then controversial, introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), football has long had a problem with technology.

Covid-19 has changed that virtually overnight. Just as the global pandemic has accelerated technological advancements in all our daily lives, it is now breaking into football’s most mysterious of corridors, the player transfer market.

With face-to-face negotiations challenging, this summer’s transfer window is proving to be the most digitally connected ever, with high-tech solutions being embraced across all levels of the game.

As an investor in transfer market platform Player Lens, I’ve seen first-hand the surge in interest from leading clubs, players and agents, who are now heading online to finalise their next move.

From players and agents creating digital CVs with instantly updated stats and video highlights to directors of football searching the market for transfer targets within their budget range, stakeholders throughout the sport are now maximising the powerful technology and data at their fingertips.

The same technological revolution is also disrupting the worlds of scouting and recruitment.

With the grassroots game still largely suspended, football scouts are needing to hang up their training coats and open laptops to uncover the next generation of star players.

Platforms such as artificial intelligence app AiScout allow scouts to find, analyse, score, rate, benchmark and identify players’ technical, athletic, cognitive and psychometric ability – all using just a mobile phone.

A recent random test of the app with 50 youth players led to six being offered trials at Premier League clubs. One has since signed for AFC Bournemouth and moved on to represent the Republic of Ireland at U19 level, demonstrating the huge potential of AI technology within scouting.

As someone who worked for 20 years on Wall Street before entering the world of sport, the positive impact that technology and data can have on a vertical as big as football’s transfer market comes as no surprise.

I’ve long believed that talent identification, player development and performance in sport can be aided and enhanced by state-of-the-art technology and predictive analytics used throughout other industries.

Why, for example, would a club take a chance on signing a big-money player or adopt a specific training method without concrete data that the actions can have a positive impact on performance and development of the team?

Let me be clear, this isn’t about playing ‘Moneyball’ or using data to identify low-cost, high-return solutions, but being insight-led and using the technology at our disposal to make smarter decisions that will carry long-term benefits.

We have already seen in recent years the positive role that data can play in areas like injury prevention, and there is much more that can be done within the sports science discipline, as we increase data sources and learn how to further interrogate it.

Of course, during a global recession there is also a clear cost benefit here, too. At a time when football clubs must get every penny out of their investments, technology can leverage their spending power, help to drive efficiencies and increase ROI.

As Covid-19 moves football into the ‘Insight Era’, even the staunchest critics of technology within the game are going to need to embrace it.

It’s time to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

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