Last week I attended the Leaders in Performance conference, hosted by Chelsea Football Club at Stamford Bridge. The conference is part of the Leaders conferences that are co-located at Chelsea — the others focusing on football, sponsorship, digital sport, and horseracing — and is one of the two conferences that occur over two days (Leaders in Football is the other). The idea of the Leaders conference is to bring together, well, leaders in their respective fields for two days of panel discussions, information interchange, and networking. There is also an exhibit area for companies and firms to showcase their relevant products to the attendees. It is similar to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with the exceptions that there are no technical sessions and the attendance is invitation-only.
I always feel that the true value of these conferences is in the networking opportunities that occur in the halls or other common areas. The Leaders organizers appear to have recognized this because they arranged large meeting areas where attendees could watch the proceedings of the Leaders in Football conference (thanks to wireless earpieces), eat, work from their laptops, or have conversations with others. It presented an opportunity for attendees to get off their feet once in a while and have more comfortable conversations with people. You would think that most conferences would provide ample meeting space for their attendees, but they don't.
The exhibitors at the conference presented technologies, products, and services that spanned the range of sports performance. There were companies that were showing off products for athletic training or performance measurement, technologies for broadcast media, the gaming industry, and club operations, and sports data and analytics products and services. As I have stated in my talk at Florida State, many of the sports data companies are based in Europe, while most of the sports analytics firms are based in the USA, and that was reflected in the exhibiting companies. Soccer was the primary target market, of course, but other sports were represented as well.
Now I discuss the panel sessions. There were eight sessions during the conference — 45-50 minutes of moderator-led questions to the panelists followed by 5-10 minutes of questions. The sessions had the following topics:
- Practice makes perfect: Or so they say
- Success in business: What are the lessons for sport?
- Managing success: Fail to plan, plan to fail.
- Playing for success: The athlete's mindset
- The science of sport: How to make the most out of talent
- Think right: Taking the emotion out of decision making
- Innovation and performance: How to shape today with tomorrow's strategies
- How numbers and culture shape success: Does it add up?
The large majority of the panelists were from the UK, with a few from the USA and one each from France, Germany, and Qatar. I did not attend all of the sessions, so I will give a review of the sessions that I did attend.
- Success in Business: This session featured CEOs from the sports apparel and banking sectors — Kevin Plank (Under Armour) and Mervyn Davies (Standard Chartered Bank) — with the objective of discussing principles learned from running a business that could apply to sport. Davies actually held a board position with Tottenham Hotspur, so you would think that he would have more to say, but I felt that Plank had the more insightful comments.
The main theme of the session was the weighing of short-term success against long-term development. Both are important for a sports team, but the latter requirement is more urgent (if you lose, you could miss the playoffs, get relegated, and/or get fired). There are prevailing currents in the industry that can't be controlled, but there are things in business and sport that can be controlled by the team, and it is important to focus on those. A pro-active approach to problems, an attitude that encourages learning throughout all levels, and a desire to hire a diverse team (in terms of skill sets) were emphasized. Companies, as well as sports teams, have a brand and a culture that they want to promote and protect, and their choices in personnel, product, and strategy should reflect those.
- Managing Success: This session was moderated by Simon Kuper (FT/Soccernomics co-author) and headed by Damien Comolli (Liverpool) and Frank Arnesen (Hamburg SV). Both Comolli and Arnesen are "sporting directors", which in Europe is roughly the same position as a general manager at an American sports team; they appoint the manager and make the personnel decisions. Such a position has more readily adopted on the Continent than the UK, but it will become more widely used after long-serving managers like Ferguson and Wenger retire.
Comolli and Arnesen stated that the highly competitive nature of their respective leagues forces them to develop methods of recruitment and assessment that maximize value and reduce risk. Comolli's main comment was "you [the sporting director] are only as good as your last signing", which is definitely true in the court of public opinion. I was very pleased to hear Comolli use the term "soccermetrics", yet I got the impression that the use of data by football clubs, even by those who are at the forefront, is still quite primitive. (I suppose that's good for me in that I have a job.)
I asked both panelists if they have buy-in from the highest levels of management on their data-oriented decision-making; a softball question for Comolli to be sure, given that Liverpool are owned by New England Sports Ventures, but a more interesting question for Arnesen given Hamburg's ownership structure. Comolli answered that John Henry et al. insist on decisions backed up by data, but Arnesen said that he has to educate the board members of his club on the approaches that he takes.
- Think Right: This session was different from all the others in that the panelist, Dr. Steve Peters (British Cycling) actually gave a presentation. I did not attend all of the presentation, so I can't comment on everything he said, but he spoke about taking emotion out of the decision-making in sporting events. In doing so, he used the metaphor of the human (who is conscious of the decisions that are made), the computer (who makes decisions automatically, as if by autopilot), and the chimp (who makes primal decisions that are not necessarily the best ones). An athlete operates in all three modes during a competition, and the objective is to be sufficiently prepared and focused so that the computer mode dominates. But at times the chimp mode will come on and the athlete will make an impulsive decision that is often regretted later (see Rooney, Wayne). I don't think about sports psychology often enough so this talk turned out to be quite interesting; I wish I had seen all of it.
- Innovation and Performance: The panelists for this session were Geoff McGrath (McLaren F1) and Stephen Park (RYA Skandia Team Great Britain). I felt that this session was the best organized of the sessions that I attended, and would not be surprised if it were the best organized of the entire conference. That this session was so informative was a result of the moderator David Brailsford (British Cycling), who explained the points of emphasis of the session, led discussions very efficiently and ensured that all of the points were examined well. True to his opening statement, he didn't hope for the best but rather planned for the best, and he was the best moderator by a wide margin.
Innovation is the act of converting research to development and then to best practices, or in business, taking an idea to market and then creating a measurable performance gain. Brailsford hit on what he felt were the elements of innovation: process, culture, performance, financing, and ethics. The panelists stated that innovation required a lifestyle in the organization that is open to new ideas yet is focused on a critical path, a champion within the organization who understands the critical path yet is willing to take risks, a method of processing and analyzing data that becomes actionable intelligence, a strategy of partnering with other organizations at the right times in order to maximize return, and a balancing of technology with humanity.
- Numbers and Culture: This was the final session of the conference and was the most anticipated, with RC Buford (San Antonio Spurs) and Billy Beane (Oakland A's, Moneyball) as the panelists. As you might guess by the title, this session talked more about the impact of numbers in decision-making than the other sessions. Again, the trend toward more systematic analysis of the game is being driven by the transition in sports team ownership from family firms to venture capitalists, the desire to minimize risk, and the impact of regulation by the league or governing body. Beane made the point that sports teams, after working with little data for so long, are now suffering from data overload yet do not have the resources to do advanced analysis. "Maybe we'll see someone like the Bill James of soccer in the near future!" Beane said. (I smiled.) Both Buford and Beane felt that there were lessons that US sport could learn from European sport, especially in the area of nutrition and conditioning, while European sport could learn from American sport in the use of data analysis.
If I could summarize the Leaders in Performance conference, I would say that the main issues that football clubs are concerned about are value, risk, and regulation. Regulation comes from the outside and impacts the amount of money available to spend, but even so, clubs always want to maximize the value of their investment and reduce as much as possible the risk being undertaken on personnel decisions. I left encouraged by the interactions that I had at the conference. It appears that professional clubs are recognizing the need for advanced data analysis and I believe that my company is well-positioned to provide the kind of solutions that will add value to their organizations and improve the chances of success. But outside of the UK and Scandanavia the level of interest is not quite there, so there is still a lot of work to be done. But I left Stamford Bridge on Wednesday very much fired with enthusiasm!
Thank you to Mike Forde, Simon Lau, James Worrall, and others for organizing a valuable, informative, and successful Leaders conference. Hopefully I'll do well enough to keep getting invited back!