This post was originally published on Richard Ayers’ personal blog.
Do you know a bit about football? Or a lot? Can you remember the score of a game 5 years ago when you were standing in a stadium on a wet wednesday night and your team lost 3-2 after going down to 10 men in the 63rd minute?
That made-up match might not be the right details, but if you’re a real football fan then you probably remember something similar – as well as a selection of other random details from times past and fixtures forgotten.
Does that make you a statto?
Most people will react badly if you call them a statto. It has become a pejorative term – as portrayed bySkinner and Baddiel‘s Fantasy Football League comedy sidekick or maybe long before that – and although there’s a grudging respect for the feats of memory that sporting stattos display, there’s also a lot of laughter behind the communal hand.
The stereotype is that stattos remember facts. Data. They don’t necessarily remember meaning or turn that data into knowledge or, better still, understanding, let alone the peak of the information pyramid: wisdom.
So data’s got a bad rep – it’s the domain of stattos and geeks.
But I have seen football data that delights.
Over the last 6 months I’ve been working closely with the Performance Analysis team at Manchester City FC. Gavin Fleig and Ed Sulley have been informing and enthusing me (a footballing muggle) with their explanations and demonstrations. They are sporting data gods.
Every movement of our players in a match, in the gym and on the training pitch is recorded, converted to data, analysed and presented back with expert understanding. It forms part of the whole picture that informs training and performance improvements. No-one here is called a statto and yet they all accept their statto status.
The reason why I’ve been working so closely with them is because I think they hold the solution to a challenging problem for football. It is this: How do you bring together people with a lot of knowledge of the game and those who only have a little? The fan from Manchester and the fan from Minnesota. The established and the uninitiated, or, as I like to call them, the veteran and the newcomer. Of course a Minnesotan might actually be a lifelong soccer fan, it goes without saying, and there are definitely people in the UK with low levels of knowledge (myself included) but generally speaking the average Mancunian knows more than the man in Mumbai.
You could argue for hours about what makes a ‘fan’ vs a ‘supporter’ or ‘follower’ but leaving those definitions aside, I believe there are a couple of major challenges for any club that wants to increase the number of people who care (to whatever degree) about the activity of the club, but have a range of experience of the game: 1) veterans do not necessarily welcome newcomers and 2) it is tricky to talk to fans with varying levels of football understanding.
I don’t think that Gavin and Ed have the solution to problem no.1. But I think that data, digital media and performance analysis might hold the solution to no. 2.
In my view, broadcast media is bad at addressing multiple audiences. It picks a target audience and aims at it. In the case of football coverage in this country, the BBC’s MOTD and Sky’s MNF address fans who are closer to the veteran end of the scale. There is little explanation for the layman.
Digital media, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to explain the game to the uninitiated. We have restrictions about what we can do with match footage, but we can use performance data, put it in an application that allows the user to choose a comfortable level of knowledge and let them play with the information. What’s more, they can do it at their own convenience and at their own speed.
This is what takes data into a new sphere – we can move from data journalism through data visualisation and, hopefully, to the holy grail of engaging an audience: data entertainment, or (forgive me) datatainment.
Gavin and Ed have been able to show me how the data can tell a story which gives me greater understanding of the strategic context of a game. I now appreciate some of the chess-playing tactics of managers and the expertise it takes to carry out those plans.
Over the next few months at City, we’ll be starting on a journey towards datatainment. We’ll begin by launching prototypes that start to make the performance data transparent and, with the help of the audience, we’ll progress towards making truly entertaining data-led products.
I can’t wait for the audience’s reaction and I’ve no doubt it will be voluble whether in praise or pillory, but if even just one stato and one newbie both get information and perhaps enjoyment out of our prototypes, then we will have started off in the right direction.