The global summer sporting calendar has drawn to a close with the Women’s World Cup 2023. This summer’s tournament follows a record-breaking Women’s Euros 2022, which reached over 365 million viewers and smashed previous betting stats, closing out at over 1.5 million online bets placed throughout the tournament. Increased interest in women’s sports also led EA Sports to release their first global FIFA 23 edition with a front cover featuring the top male and female FIFA ranked players, Kylian Mbappé and Sam Kerr.

This growing interest in women’s football is sure to be beneficial to players and football leagues. Already, UEFA expects a sixfold increase in the global commercial value of women’s football (est. at €686 million annually by 2033). Importantly, this valuation is contingent on continued investment by data-driven corporations including sponsors in broadcasting, betting, and video game industries. But what would happen if these powerful and stat-driven companies suddenly had to contend with new data rules that changed the way that corporates could access and utilise player data?

A Cardiff Curveball

Like all good managers, Russel Slade, former Cardiff City manager, advocates for his players. Today, Slade is leading a team of over 850 athletes (in football and beyond) through Project Red Card, an initiative aimed at increasing players’ rights to data protection under laws such as GDPR (article 4), which demands special treatment when data is classified as ‘personal data’ (i.e., physical attributes and physiological information). The overarching goal of the project is to protect athletes, whose personal data Slade claims has been exploited and often used to benefit third parties in ways that act against players’ interests. It’s important to note that the Project Red Card campaign isn’t designed to stunt investment into women’s football – or any sporting group for that matter. Slade’s Cardiff curveball is simply challenging corporates to operate in ways that better benefit the players. 

Across the pond in America, leagues including Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) have started to codify their approach to players’ data rights by placing explicit restrictions on the sale of players’ personal data classifying as biometric, such as data collected from heartrate wearables.

Although less robust than Slade’s Project Red Card approach, America is sure to catch up, and there are already examples of the States and other countries taking steps towards broader data access and usage protections.

Putting the players back in pole position

“By building in all the intelligence we have to project players… using stats, the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that nobody else can see.”

Peter (played by Jonah Hill), Moneyball

This quote from Bennett Miller’s award-winning film, Moneyball, echoes the same sentiment some of our team, who are former athletes, spoke about when asked about data in sports.

Torii Hunter Jr., former outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels Organisation, and analyst at Elixirr, explains how relationships between players and leagues are impacted by third party data analysis. “As players,” Hunter says, “we understand that data is important for our personal development. It’s easy to understand when we can see the analysis ourselves. But it gets confusing when we [the players] don’t know who is using our data. Often, players don’t even know if they can say no to data collection. It’s sometimes uncomfortable because of how important it is – you know? We can be judged and valued on data analytics without knowing how so-and-so even came up with these numbers.”

In other words, those who own and use the data hold the power, and Slade’s push for expanded data protection would give more power to athletes by making it easier for players, like Hunter, to request information on the third parties analysing him, request inaccurate data to be corrected, better profit when his personal data is used, and even revoke the right for third parties to use his data altogether.

FIPRO, the global union for football players, has echoed similar sentiments to Slade and in July 2023, announced the creation of a centralised data management platform, designed to facilitate their athletes’ data control and rights.

The corporates under the cosh

So, which third parties are at risk? After all, many sports clubs and leagues have formalised contracts with third party data and analytics corporates, allowing them to perform analysis on players and use the data for agreed upon commercial purposes. Is it just unauthorised third parties who should be worried?

It appears everyone is under the cosh. Leading sports analytics firms like SportsRadar Group and Genius Sports Limited, for example, explicitly stressed how initiatives like Project Red Card could “significantly alter” the way their businesses collect and use data and “materially affect the sports data industry as a whole”. What’s more, even though these companies have existing contractual agreements to access player data, both worry that initiatives like Project Red Card could “impact the validity and their rights to intellectual property” so significantly, it “may force [them] to alter [their] business strategy.”

To leave a positive sporting legacy, you’ve got to stay onside

For corporates including SportsRadar Group, Genius Sports Limited, and many more, this means ensuring that data strategies, governance, operations, and infrastructure, are future proofed. Important things to consider as the industry transitions towards a more restrictive data market include:

  • Data storage and acquisition: Whether through current or new operations, or by consequence of M&A activities, businesses will need to be prepared with agile and flexible system strategies that can support proper data processing and storage across multiple geographies, sporting environments and changing legislative landscapes.
  • Data governance: Those utilising athletes’ data can standup fundamental processes like data dictionaries to enable easier tracking and labelling of data and to best manage compliance, informed consent regulations, regulatory audits, and changes in reporting needs for sensitive categories. Having experts who know what it takes to demonstrate a corporate’s progress towards stronger internal and external data governance in sports and other highly regulated industries including healthcare and finance may be key to long-term success. Data lineage is also a critical part of governance, essential when dealing with data to protect the individual and ensuring that any data enhancements or enrichments are documented and visible.
  • Data strategy: New data restrictions will mean businesses must rethink how data is leveraged to support and sustain business growth. Companies will benefit from taking an approach that pairs expertise in data strategy with a holistic industry perspective, which considers both the inside-out and outside-in implications of data usage.    

For sporting leagues and clubs who are depending on sustained investment from large, data-driven corporates, building a strong legacy might seem daunting in the face of increased pressures from two fronts, their players, and their financial sponsors. Elixirr Partner Bob Skinstad, former Springboks rugby captain and entrepreneur within sports analytics, understands why leagues and clubs may feel uncomfortable pressures, as “focus on informed consent and data ownership is much more familiar in business but hasn’t significantly been addressed in sport.”

Likewise, Conan Osborne, manager and Jamaica Rugby 7s player, highlights that these new initiatives represent a true shift in attitudes, saying, “as a player, how my data is used beyond my immediate team training isn’t spoken about often. However, I do think the conversation is likely to change, especially as the younger generation becomes more and more entrenched in data and monitoring. I think having the right conversations between the leagues, clubs, and players, is critical. At the end of the day, you want all parties to create a symbiotic ecosystem where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone benefits, and there are no surprises.”  This will require:

  • Collaboration with all stakeholders involved and an intimate understanding of the needs of players, leagues, unions, and third parties’ perspectives.
  • An ecosystem-driven approach that promotes revenue growth to all that are involved in the increasingly data-driven economy of the sports industry.
  • A challenger mentality. Being unafraid to run full steam ahead and tackle whatever obstacles come up, with poise and respect for all who play the game.

While the full scope of the issues surrounding athletes’ data usage may not be realised today, Skinstad believes that:

“Shifting data perspectives are likely going to squeeze the industry, forcing everyone to think hard about how they treat player data. Those who succeed will be the ones who can best understand the data nuances, act nimbly, and find innovative ways to change with the times.”

There are a myriad of benefits for athletes, teams and fans to harness from data – but unlocking this value will take some considered governance to make sure it is done right. Our data and analytics experts have deep experience working with companies to do just that:

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