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CIO Podcast: Sport CIOs – how F1, football, cricket & rugby CIOs lead

Graeme Hackland CIO at Williams Formula One, Damian Smith, Head of Information Technology at The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), IT Director Matthew Reynolds from Southampton Football club and sports portfolio CIO Mike Bohndiek formerly Head of IT at West Ham United.

“In cricket we capture all the data about every head strike, which goes into R&D about helmets and concussion protocols and data is turning that from an anecdotal method to a data led approach,” says Head of Information Technology at The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) Damian Smith.

Smith is CIO for cricket’s governing body, his peers IT Director Matthew Reynolds, from Southampton Football club, Graeme Hackland at Williams F1 team and sports portfolio CIO Mike Bohndiek are all at the forefront of ensuring sport uses data to improve safety, entertainment and performance.  The CIOs, came together at the Williams F1 factory in Oxfordshire to discuss how sport needs technology to drive transformation as much as any vertical market.

When it comes to data and the rising importance of technology there is much in common between the four leading UK sports CIOs.

“We are a small club, we cannot compete financially for the top players, so we have to grow cleverly with fan engagement and money through commercial activities,” Reynolds says. Although Southampton fought hard to remain in the English Premiership, the highly lucrative championship is so competitive the IT Director is a key part of helping the club increase revenues and therefore become winners. All four CIOs describe how sport has gone through a transformation of attitude. In the recent past IT was seen as a necessary evil to keep the shop tills operating, but whether it is in the Premiership or on the global race track, technology is now part of increasing fan engagement and therefore revenue, which leads to a better performance.

“Most people are awakening to digital transformation and what that means. You are running a multi-million pound retail business, you are also running a doctors surgery, the professional game and the development of players and the match day,” says Mike Bohndiek. The former CIO of West Ham Football Club is now working in rugby, golf and two different leagues of football as all levels of the sport realise the benefits of technology and good technology leadership.

Customer engagement

A key area of opportunity for CIOs in sport is using digital methods to connect directly with fans and increase the customer experience.  

“In F1 the teams have been a bit removed from the fans and the governing body has owned that relationship. That is definitely changing, with the new ownership of F1 that has happened in the last year, which is unlocking digital channels, that allow us to put content in the hands of Williams fans,” Hackland says.

“We are now a global brand with a website with premium content that you have to register for,” Reynolds of Southampton FC says. “We now have to look at Saints globally and its new markets, which are China and India and obviously the States, so it is becoming engaged with a bigger community, not just Hampshire.”

“The more participants we have, whether it is playing the game, attending or following the game the more we have a relationship with those people and the more we understand how they follow it,” Smith says of why sport needs technologists to play a major part in developing a fan and customer relationship. “People don’t have those long stretches of time at the weekends to play cricket, so we have to find new ways of engaging with them in shorter time scales, because we are not just competing with other sports, we are competing with Xbox and mobile devices for people’s time.”

Sport relies on sponsorship for revenue to invest in the best players, venues and teams and in today’s digital environment the sponsors expect more audience value from teams, clubs and sports.  

“The more participants and fans we have, the more investment we can attract from sponsors and investors and the government to invest in our game. Part of that underlying model is, if we can demonstrate to sponsors why it is more effective to sponsor our sport over others, the more we can show them what they are getting we can unlock budgets that had not previously existed.

The days of sponsorship being a bit of hospitality and signage for a city firm, those days have gone,” Smith says.

“For a F1 fan they are never going to get behind the wheel of a F1 car, but us getting data into their hands, that is what excites them,” Hackland says. Above the Williams museum we record the podcast at fans are using simulators, the team has a high end restaurant and cinema venue that fans come to on race day to be with the team as its drivers take on Spa, Monaco and Silverstone.  

“With augmented reality they may be able to compete against their favourite driver at their favourite track,” Reynolds adds. The Premiership IT Director led IT for the Renault F1 team from 2006 to 2011.

Gaming and physical sport are converging too Hackland and Reynolds reveal as eSports continue to grow.  Failure to recognise this could see eSports become a digital disruptor to sport.

“We have dipped our toes into it,” Hackland says. Williams has invested in games where fans can become part of a virtual F1 pit team and change the wheels. “We have experimented with driver eye view, you get that experience of being in the car.”

The greatest challenge that clubs face at the moment is making their revenue performance agnostic,” Bohndiek says of these opportunities.  “There is a huge amount of revenue that goes into the on the field performance, but with attendance starting to fall, that model is falling away, so a lot of engagement work I am seeing at the moment is very much to do with getting to know the fans and the individuals and what drives them to the stadium and what does their non-match day looks like.

“Ultimately sponsors now want to know ‘who do you know that we can connect with and what is your global reach?’ That drives back down to how do you capture that data and analyse it and that is where digital transformation becomes the answer.”

Data logging

“The 1979 car was the first connected car, it had a small data logger that took 20 minutes to download one lap of data, now on a Friday we generate 10 gigabytes of data and over the whole weekend 60-80 gigabytes of telemetry data,” Hackland says of how the Internet of Things and connected devices and vehicles are nothing new to Formula One. But having had sensors on the cars since the days of Alan Jones and John Watson, F1 is now putting sensors on team members.

“We have put biometric sensors on the pit crew and we have been talking about how we extend that across the organisation and how do we keep our people performing at their best, and when they are not, how do we support them if someone is unwell or stressed and you can deal with it.

“At the sharp end, how do you make sure the fourth pit stop of the day is as good as the first,” the Formula One CIO says of the instrumentation of human data.

“One of the great challenges in football is the inflated transfer fees and the amount of money you invest. So a lot more is being invested in scouting again and looking in the farther reaches of the world, the challenge is that the data is not as rich and you don’t understand the flow of the league, so how do you compare that with someone playing in Argentinian division two?” Bohndiek says of how CIOs in football are helping scouts discover and analyse data to make sure every signing delivers goals per pounds.

“There is a huge amount of movement in that space to centralise and globalise a data set for a global game to find that next star, that next multi million pound player, but pay a fraction of the price to them.”

“We have now put technology in place so we can track all our players and we can correlate injuries from not what they have done, but where they have done it and we can learn and we did have the lowest soft tissue injuries in the league. For a club like Southampton it is total cost of ownership and what can we sell that player for and how can we grow our commercial revenues,” Reynolds says with direct honesty about the players being assets.

Reynolds adds that at Southampton the focus is on a “digital core” where not only is the club collecting data, but also has the right skills available to analyse the data and ensure the team and organisation are using the data beneficially.

Smith adds that like Reynolds, at the ECB he and his team are working on making sure everyone in the organisation has access to the data so interesting ideas and useful outcomes are fielded.

“You can ask for every ball bowled at Virat Kohli and then have sports science, medical and coaches looking at how to get him out.  Then we add all of the hawkeye telemetry for how fast the ball is going when it leaves the bowler’s hands, where it ends up, revolutions and we have biometric and GPS data from the players,” Smith says. As an organising body the ECB is also capturing data in the amatuer level and fan engagement.

“That helps us understand massive diverse sets of dynamics about our game and our sport, ranging from where our game is being played through to open source data sets on whether there are planning applications for developments that will be built on cricket grounds and where can these people play cricket.

“Are they using the venues in the way they are because the venue is forcing them to do that or are they choosing to use the venue in that way? I always use the example, an hour into the game, some of the children are bored, they have bought a bat, screwed up a newspaper as a ball and a bin as a wicket, so perhaps we should be creating venues where they can all play cricket with the players helping them and then that affects the development of the venue. All this data makes us more evidence based.”

“The streamlining of operations is that people, process and technology piece and there is a lot going on to understand the business protocols and the technology that can help with that,” Bohndiek says.  The head of PTI Consulting says a lot of sports organisations are only just on the starting grid for technology centralisation.

“For many if the commercial director wants a new CRM they go an buy one, if the analyst wants a new scouting system, they go and but one and disparate data is spread all over the organisation. Bringing technology into the centre of the business so you can understand what role technology will play in the business and help you drive it. So you move away from anecdotal to ‘I can tell you how much that was’ and we can measure the revenue, the conversion rate,” Bohndiek says.

Hackland and Smith add that data is also increasingly important in making sport safer.

“As well as injury surveillance and making sure you have the fittest and healthiest players on the pitch, we also do a lot of research around spine MRI, which feeds into insight into what is the best bowling action for children and how to coach children more effectively so they don’t get injured,” Smith of the ECB says. This strategy aims to keep players not only safe, but engaged fans for life.

“It helps tie things together, you look at the medical data, different times of the year, seasons, competitions and you can then partner and commercialise the relationships with the nutrition vendors and take that into the health and wellbeing parts of our organisations. Which you can take that out to the younger players to show how a star eats on a match day. You have gone from performance analysis and how we get the best out of your players on the pitch for performance and results, you have generated revenue and then you have gone out into the community for impact,” Bohndiek says.

Returning to engaging with fans and customers Smith says: “When you go to a live sporting event you have a far less informed experience. So we are continually researching ways to put more insight into the hands of the fan and the connected fan.

“We know that some batsmen, because they are busy batsman, in the course of scoring a half century they would run a half marathon, whilst others will smack boundaries and not run at all. And that is interesting insight for the spectator and plays into how that batsman trains.”

“One of the great challenges in football is the broadcast deal and what you can and can’t do in the stadium,” Bohndiek adds of how the connected fan doesn’t exist due to existing broadcast rights. He describes how fans try and contact friends outside of the game “that speaks to the less immersive experience at the ground” and how sports CIOs are looking for networking opportunities to improve that experience.

“What can we do with the base level infrastructure inside the stadium so that it is the same as what people have outside of the stadium?”

“It is connecting that person who can’t come to the sport through augmented reality and bring the armchair fan closer to the sport,” adds Reynolds.

Performance driven

“We exist to turn potential into excellence in everything we do,” Southampton’s Reynolds says in a sentence that any Premiership coach could use. “If my team want to do well, there is no such thing as an IT project it is a business project. I challenge all my staff to be leaders not followers. Because you are in a pinnacle of your industry,” Reynolds says of ensuring IT is part of the team, just that some members of the team wear red and white stripes and score goals.

“We have been on a bit of a journey from being that traditional IT organisation to now working in lock step with our post grads and developing apps really quickly in one, two or three week lifecycles,” Smith says.

Hackland agrees and says Williams has also been on a transformation of the team. “Whether you are in IT, marketing or composites we are one team and focused on one single mission. If you are having to align IT then you are out of step. We have people that travel with the race team and they look like everyone else, and the idea of a separate IT function will completely disappear and the CIO will look after the risk.”

Just as in enterprise, CIOs in sport are using cross-functional teams to deliver results. Reynolds at Southampton FC says data scientists from his team are spending a day a week with the sports scientists and medical teams and other parts of the organisation work in IT as and when required.

“I love the sport environment,” Hackland says;  “Even when times are tough, you know you will be able to improve things for the next race or season and there is something about the environment,it is amazing to work in.

“You enjoy it, but you have to perform, It is so much more enjoyable than a proper job, I get to work with athletes every day and with the best in the world or at the pinnacle of their career or people with a passion for engaging with children and women to enjoy our sport,” Smith says of joining cricket from insurance.

Diversity

No one can have failed to notice the rise of women’s sport in recent years. Womens football, cricket, cycling and many others has been a breath of fresh air for many sports fans and an important part of increasing diversity awareness in society.  Yet as the podcast panel demonstrated, diversity in technology teams continues to be an issue. So as team leaders, what are our sport CIOs doing to increase diversity?

Hackland at Williams is heavily involved, as is the whole Williams organisation, in STEM programmes with schools. Williams is led by Claire Williams. “There is no reason why there shouldn’t be more women,” Hackland says. “You miss out on so many skills if you end up with an all male environment.”

Smith of the ECB adds: “If you employ the same we will find the same. Find people with the potential, find those who are not the norm and so that means getting into education.”

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