The following was compiled by Columbia’s Kelly Carroll
This post is another in a series from the Columbia University Sports Podcast, a 360-degree view of the sports business from the people leading it. Each podcast is approximately 35–45 minutes in length, and features industry insiders from all aspects of the business—from brand executives to startup founders to former MLB players—all talking about their work, the current state of the sports industry, and, more importantly, the future of the field.
With data increasingly becoming an integral part of sports training, competition, and consumption, Joe Favorito and Tom Richardson sat down with expert Angus McNab to discuss how this type of content can be used to tell a compelling story, train athletes, and even regulate sports gambling. As vice president of North American content at Perform Group, a global digital sports content and media company, McNab works with Opta, a sports data company acquired by Perform in 2013. He also serves as a visiting lecturer on global sports analytics for Columbia University’s Sports Management Program.
Here to perform: The Perform Group has three core divisions: a media arm that owns and operates platforms around the world, a content arm that delivers B2B solutions, data, video, and other services to clients, and an OTT division where McNab says the company has made some of its biggest strides in the sports industry during the past few years. As an OTT service, the company has exclusive rights to deliver NFL games in Germany, and the rights to deliver Bundesliga soccer matches in Japan. But Perform is also built to feed itself, collecting data to inform its other businesses. “It’s been a very, very clever and very well-structured and planned acquisition strategy, to build a group of businesses that serve ourselves internally but also our external clients and wider plans we have within the OTT division and other aspects we’re looking at strategically,” says McNab. “Data is really important within the content division, but also within the other buckets that sit within the company, because it powers a lot within our portals.”
Pub ammo: While powering the company from within, Perform’s data also powers the external conversation around sports. The company runs Sporting News, a trusted news source founded 130 years ago, as well as Goal.com, a soccer-centric site focused on local markets. On Opta’s official Twitter account, @OptaJoe, the company communicates data in context to its nearly 800,000 followers. A tweet on the February Champions League matchup between Arsenal and Barcelona (“0-Barcelona have failed to attempt a shot on target in the first half of a #UCL game for the first time since November 2013. Shy. #AFCvFCB”) received 1,027 retweets in 23 hours. “We provide that essential bit of pub ammo that sort of ignites a debate,” says McNab, crediting his colleague Simon Banoub with coining the phrase.
Data as a baseline: Apart from using data to tell a story, Perform works at compiling data so users can make determinations. According to McNab, the more data you can collect and build upon, the more metrics that people have to look at and analyze, the more accurately you can measure growth over time and success. It can also help to settle rivalries. “Is Maradona or Messi better?” McNab asks. “How can you quantify who’s the greatest if you haven’t got a baseline on everyone?” A few years ago, McNab worked on a project analyzing every soccer World Cup game from 1966 to the present day. “We have those elements where, not only can you speak about who’s the greatest performer for Argentina in the World Cup Finals, but you can also then look back from ’66 to the current World Cup and say ‘well, actually how has the game changed? How has the style of play the teams are involved in evolved and changed and moved on over the years?’”
The evolution of wearable technology: According to McNab, a huge unsettled question surrounding wearable technology and the data it produces is who actually owns that content. A number of athletes would argue it is theirs, while leagues or teams may say otherwise. Players’ associations and leagues will inevitably be debating this issue in the future, he says. But he also sees the inherent value of data for increasing the franchise value of players, by helping explain aspects of a players’ game to the media, or keeping players active for a longer time over their careers. “Every minute they’re not on the pitch or on the court, that’s in some ways dollars wasted,” McNab adds.
Sports gambling: Coming from the U.K., McNab sees the distinct differences between the gambling philosophies of his homeland and the U.S. “I think we’ve had a nice easy chat ‘til now,” he says with a laugh when asked about his thoughts on the topic, “and you hit me with the big question towards the end.” Though the U.K. allows betting on sports, McNab notes that it’s the most regulated gambling market on the planet, and data and technology have helped that regulation evolve. But the biggest difference between the two countries is not data or tech driven, he says. It’s cultural. Growing up with legalized sports betting, McNab says it became part of the sports-tradition fabric. Speaking personally, he adds, “it was about small stakes and fun.”
Chat with people…offline: While McNab lauds Twitter as one of the best places to look for information sources, and LinkedIn as the modern day address book or business card, he places personal interactions over social media, especially in the small community of sports. “I like working with my clients because I like working in sports and so do they,” McNab says. “Twitter’s great, LinkedIn’s great, but still spend time with people within the industry. Go for a beer with them. Go for a coffee with them. Chat to them. People want to help each other out in this industry.”
These were just some of the topics Angus McNab discussed with Joe and Tom. The entire podcast, number 9 in the series, can be heard here.