Tal Brown: How I see European football after two years in the industry


Before starting Zone7, I was one of the first product managers at Salesforce to create and ship enterprise tools with artificial intelligence (AI) capability. This is where I met Eyal, who I’d go on to co-found Zone7 with. He shared my passion for data science and was working as a sport scientist and data researcher in soccer. He described the impact injuries had on sports organizations and we realized machine learning had tremendous potential for injury risk management in sport.

Upon starting Zone7, I very quickly moved from an outsider to being totally immersed in the sports industry. This has provided me with a unique viewpoint, and so here are a few of my takeaways.

New ownership is accelerating change

Sport has always faced change. However, we are now seeing a pressure to accelerate that change, and much of that is coming from new owners. These owners view sport differently, and as such, empower their organisations to implement technology wherever possible to enhance performance, both on and off the field.

New ownership groups I’ve seen in football and rugby, such as Ospreys owner James Davies-Yandle and Y11 Sports & Media, have the mindset of ‘Let’s run this as we run our other portfolios of companies, look at areas where we have risk, and how can we control it.’

As a result, that puts pressure on everybody else because if one team in the league does that and is showing good results, that creates a gravitational force to accelerate the process of adopting that technology.

In the case of Zone7, injuries are recognised across the board as one of the most impactful risks on sports organizations.

We have seen an evolution from where injury risk was assessed by club directors a few times a year at most, into a desire to have an ongoing understanding of daily risk, how to manage it, and how to best make informed decisions.

Clearly the best players are not going to be resting all the time just to reduce risk, but risk management is about the best preparation possible and about transparency and informed decisions and that’s what directors are pushing for.

Consequently we are seeing teams use algorithms to address injury risk, and consequently Zone7‘s client list has grown faster now than pre-COVID. We are seeing the industry more open than ever in terms of looking at ways to reduce risk in every department.

Increasing importance of big data

It’s very timely that Keven De Bruyne hired data analysts to give him leverage when negotiating his new contract at Manchester City.

The Belgian playmaker commissioned Analytics FC to study almost every relevant aspect of his contribution to the team, and indeed the team’s continued chances of success.

He wanted information on his own performances and impact, but also a prediction on the squad’s ability to continue challenging for top honours such as the Champions League based on their age and qualities, also comparing City to their rivals at home and abroad.

He then utilised this information to negotiate a new deal, worth over £80m.

I think there’s a strong correlation between winning and being able to utilize data well, and it’s not just De Bruyne who recognises this. Manchester City themselves appointed Laurie Shaw as Lead AI Scientist back in January. The move is an attempt to bridge the gap with other, well established science departments like LiverpoolSouthampton and Barcelona in their bid to become one the most established, best-resourced and best-staffed data science departments in world football.

The world’s most valuable resource

In 2017 The Economist wrote ‘The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data’.

As the applications of AI are further integrated into every facet of life, including the sports industry, this will only become more true.

If you’re wondering why, here’s an excerpt from TechWire Asia’s article ‘First mover advantage will be significant for those that deploy AI at scale that summaries it well:

[IDC Big Data and AI AVP Christopher] Marshall believes companies need to understand that running AI projects at scale provides vastly increased business value for individual users, including reduced costs, greater revenues, and more insights.

“This further increases the extent to which these tools are used, and therefore increases the amount of data and the quality of the AI models used, and still further increases the value created by the AI models.

“This virtuous cycle is the holy grail of AI at scale and what makes relatively minor improvements scale up to game-changing innovations.”

In essence, this means we can provide a data-driven comparison of Player X to the millions of player hours we have analysed, with a high enough level of confidence to suggest similarity. Zone7 closes the loop on the data elements making our data asset extremely powerful. It’s not just about game data, it’s about injuries sustained, and every practise, game and medical test preceding the injuries going back months and years. Our mammoth collection of data sets Zone7 apart, and means no individual club could replicate our product in-house, even if they had access to the same, or similar, technology.

The Result

The culmination of these two trends is probably best demonstrated by the Pacific Media Group (PMG).

Led by American investor Paul Conway, PMG owns a portfolio of five clubs across Europe, including Barnsley, AS Nancy Lorraine, and KV Oostende.

Conway and PMG have identified that within sport, particularly European football, there is an overemphasis on immediate performance. This, they claim, is taking focus away from building long-term strategies that will actually yield lasting results.

Ultimately, their multi-club strategy is focused on a data-led, youth-oriented, high pressing philosophy and it’s the modern business approach to football:

  1. Define what makes the company successful and find a repeatable model that isn’t purely dependent on the skills of one individual outstanding player.
  2. Harness the data. Make decisions based on the numbers, not sentiment or what the old boys network have ‘always done’.
  3. Drive out the inefficiencies (whether that be agents, or older players on unjustifiable wages)
  4. Create Buy-In from users (including from coaches, players, and staff)
  5. Scale (this is where the multi-club model becomes a huge advantage, as you can create a player development pipeline built around a central ethos).

The results already speak for themselves, PMG are currently pushing for Europe in Belgium, and chasing promotion in England, France, Denmark, and Switzerland. City Football Group, who also follow a multi club model (albeit with more grandeur) and share a passion for data-led processes, are enjoying huge success this season as Manchester City lead the Premier League and challenge for the Champions League.