One of the core features of the A-Leagues’ independence from the FA has been the digital hub, touted by the league’s chiefs as a game changer.
We’ve had many game changers over the years as football fans.
From expansion to TV deals to marquees. Do not get me wrong, these all play a huge part in the growth of the game but taking the A-Leagues to the next level requires something momentous.
This importance placed on the league’s data driven approach can feel somewhat disappointing to many of the game’s fans in Australia. Ask any football fan and they’ll tell you ten different ways in their opinion you’ll grow the game. Some viable granted, but some very unviable.
Ultimately in the changing digital world and the shift in the consumption of our content, and by extension our sporting and entertainment products, pretty much all of those fan opinions can be validated or invalidated by the data the administrators are looking to garner.
Now a key point here, is this type of data isn’t gleaned from reading the comments section on Facebook, nor the ‘ratio’ on an A-Leagues Twitter post.
Platforms tend to be an echo chamber, and in many cases, users aren’t provided with full information to make an educated response or are too busy engaging in edgy efforts to grow their social media reputation.
Data possesses an integral role in the world of sport for decades, largely on field. Moneyball is probably the most famous example. The huge financial power of betting data providers companies like BetRadar, and Opta further accentuate this point.
While providing data for betting, this powers critical analysis of football, allowing us to reduce emotive moments to series of numbers. This is not a criticism, but people can now follow a game not by the heart racing, emotionally inducive chance or moment, but rather the expected goals, chances created, and key passes made by players.
Similarly, great data for administrators to make decisions, find revenue, and commercialise isn’t garnered from a poll of fifty people specifically following one particular Twitter user.
A player’s performance isn’t critically analysed by great pundits by only watching segments of their game. It’s analysed by the overarching statistics in addition to their visual performance. Some great examples of this exist on Kick360, with detailed visual and statistical analysis of players like Ajdin Hrustic for example.
Data Revolution for Australian Football
The previous FFA administration started this trend with the MyFootball App. For most consumers, this provided access to fixtures, and also provided access to watching games on the app.
However like an iceberg, the biggest parts are under the surface. For the first time, this provided a link between the professional game and the grassroots game. This system, and its complex database of all grassroots registered players provided a complete picture of the football landscape.
There were many criticisms of this platform, which I won’t detail here, but by and large my overall position is that the platform didn’t go far enough.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the FFA or those who created the platform, with politics and the fractured nature of football administration playing the same tune as it has throughout history. But this platform proved to be the foundations in which the new A-Leagues is set to build upon.
To the end user, us football fans, the digital hub may prove to be a central portal for which we can get our fixtures, news, announcements, releases and video content.
It can provide detailed insight, engaging videos, fun polls and quizzes. But again, under the surface, it provides a wealth of information that provides the game, the league and its clubs better customer data, and more tailored and effective commercial opportunities and placements.
First Party Data
The A-Leagues’ Strategy and Digital Director Michael Tange is front and centre of this new approach. In many industry interviews, Tange refers to the rigorous roadmap and timeline of this new digital hub. In an interview with Leaders in Sport Tange states that “Football is the biggest growth opportunity in Australian sport.”
Tange later states: “Our contribution to that model and our ability to create value for our partners will come from our investing in three capability builds: Being the biggest football content machine in our market, to unite the football audience and grow engagement in all types of football; World-class 1st party data capability and digital properties to build a 1:1 connection and personalise the football experience.”
Corporate speak to many, but there are many points we can pull from this alone. Content. We all talk about the power of Sokkah Twitter, and this does extend to effective and engaging content developed from the administrators to give fans craving for more.
While many like to joke about just ‘giving the marketing budget to A-League Memes,’ what it does is provide these talented creators opportunities to doctor and showcase more content, as it is created/developed by the A-Leagues and their clubs. Long term, it could also mean more opportunities for these grassroots content creators to have meaningful proper roles within the overall digital content hub of the league.
The other main point here is the 1:1 connection and First Party Data. This phrase means nothing to most, but the easiest explanation is data collected directly from your customer or audience.
This could be in the form of building a base profile of the ‘ideal’ or ‘prototype’ fan in different regions from usage of social media hashtags or responses. Integrations and engagement with specific types of content, subscription data and viewership from OTT integrations either from Paramount+ or any OTT features on the A-leagues app. The possibilities here are endless.
To speculate, this can inform a wide range of options. For example this data may show that engagement with La Liga content on the digital content side is notably higher with Melbourne City fans.
This can provide great information for commercial opportunities but also content opportunities. It may showcase information like huge interest in the Central Coast Mariners specifically in certain suburbs on the outskirts of the Central Coast.
This can inform club community engagement decisions, and provide opportunities to engage, provide free tickets to grassroots clubs and convert fans with friends who already support the club, providing long term membership benefits.
British mathematician Clive Humby in 2006 coined the phrase ‘data is the new oil’. The context also extended to the notion that like oil, data left unrefined is rather useless.
The most real example of dead statistics is pure OZTAM television viewership as the key indicator of the A-Leagues future potential, or by extension the interest in the game.
While it does provide insight, it doesn’t tell a complete story without being refined, or in real terms, context. For those curious, the context would be the outgoing broadcaster’s approach and promotion of the game and the shift in consumption to new-age SVOD/OTT platforms – something not compiled in TV viewership data.
Sports globally is facing a huge shift in the way it monetises and finds value commercially. Traditional sports sponsorship is changing dramatically.
With the exception of the major partners, I challenge you to name all the partners that sponsor the teams you support. There’s a high chance you cannot name them all. As such, the efficacy of those partnerships has waned significantly.
There’s also so many partners these days, and this is a by-product of the overall efficacy. Sports teams need more partners to cover costs. This commercial relationship in the traditional sense is untenable, and this is across all codes, sports and locations.
Data provides a new approach. Now, this is not saying that sports teams need to sell your data. I personally don’t believe in that approach. However, the interconnectivity provides a golden opportunity.
Something as simple as a consumer poll after a man of the match voting system, something of a similar ilk to Formula One’s ‘Driver of the Day’ provides valuable, quantifiable consumer data which can form part of commercial strategy. If you’re anonymously voting on a member’s poll about who played the best for your side and also answered a question about your favourite holiday destination, do you really care or find it overly inconvenient?
What this does provide is first party data about potential holiday packages that can be marketed to a core segment of engaged football fans. This can be used direct sure, but also indirectly.
Hypothetically WebJet, a long-term partner of Sydney FC could use this to change their overall marketing strategy to the Sydney general market, with valuable data on where Sydneysiders (who are engaged with Sydney FC granted) would like to visit.
Now this all relies on having valid data and a sizeable enough dataset to create educated insights, but these are all hypotheticals. Whether the digital hub will be used specifically for this purpose, we don’t know.
This is the power of data to sports organisations. It can be used in so many ways, ethically, that drive up and empower the game’s commercial approach. This means more money, for your clubs, more investment in your communities (ideally), and potentially better quality of football with reinvestment in facilities, players and academies.
This data doesn’t just inform for commercial purposes. It can shape everything from our online and digital experience, as simple as knowing what type of content football fans want to see, through to what type of content resonates with non-A-League football fans.
It can inform and help direct our match-day experience. What football fans want to see in venue. What types of integrations and experiences they want to have.
Changing the game without changing the game
During the Super League fiasco, Florentino Perez made references to the fact that young people don’t watch football games anymore, or words to that effect. His end point was to drastically change football. 60-minute games. The datasets aren’t wrong, but the inference drawn was very off the mark.
People are consuming content differently. We can see this in the real world. When you look at the social media post of an article from a major masthead or journalist, and half the comments are from people who clearly did not read the article. We see this with the huge popularity of platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels. Our content consumption behaviours have changed, as has our consumption of football.
Perez’ comments were made based on a shift from watching three-four football games a weekend from a devout football follower, to perhaps only watching the game for their team.
I personally fall into this category. Am I less engaged with football? No. I just don’t have time. The world we live in has changed, our working habits, life habits have all shifted. Does this mean I hate 90-minute football games? No. In reality I watch the mini-matches so I can get my football fix.
Broadcasters like Optus Sport, Fox in Australia, and countless around the world know this. And have adapted. Football has an opportunity to tap into that. We see examples of this again in the real world. The infamous Vedran Janjetovic error has millions of views on A-League Memes, and the Riley McGree scorpion kick racking up huge numbers.
Will the non-A-League fan from Brisbane now go back and watch that Wanderers-Brisbane game or the Melbourne City-Newcastle fixture? Probably not. But they, along with millions of others are now aware of those players, but the teams even momentarily.
Short content is in vogue. This data, either third party or first party gives the league an opportunity to take better advantage of these short moments and find a commercial angle or approach.
With these shifts, the biggest change to us as football fans will be more content provided to us, but as noted a few times, the biggest changes and opportunities lie beneath the surface. The opportunities the league can take with effective and efficient data usage is endless.
To be fair, the data boffins will lament this opinion article as I haven’t even begun to touch a huge chunk of the benefits and usage that this data can afford to the league, or that I haven’t even touched on the shift away from traditional cookies.
This is very true. But I’d probably need a few thousand more words and some data scientists to really refine something of that depth.
The core message here is that the game has an enormous opportunity to finally tap into its huge grassroots base, and take advantage of the ‘oil’ that we sit on.
The pessimists in our game will lament this opinion on the notion that it’s somehow ridiculous that this hasn’t been happening for decades.
But this isn’t entirely accurate. The steps had been taken for a while to move in this direction, and we aren’t the only sport late to the party.
Data in the AFL was reshaped dramatically by the outbreak of COVID-19, and the NRL made the decision to actually discontinue its own media hub (NRL.com) in favour of cost cutting for the purposes of expansion.
Ultimately the message here is that for a long time, we have cried out to those running the game to change their tactics. To be more adaptable. To learn what football fans want, as opposed to trying to convert fans of other codes, and to engage better with the grassroots.
The A-Leagues Digital Hub could very well prove to be the pitch, where those tactics will be deployed.
Image Supplied: Melbourne City