Technological Change and Global Integration in Football

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Technology is at the spearhead of innovation in every other industry in the world including sports. The sports industry is expected to be valued at 73.5 billion$ by 2019 as per the Forbes. Top-tier companies make it a point to invest ceaselessly in their R&D to stay relevant in the race to innovate, and new projects come up seeking to meet needs that remain to be met. For example, the last three top sponsors of the Olympics were tech companies, Facebook and Amazon are finally bundling and offering sports content into their services, and Artificial Intelligence such as IBM’s Watson are helping athletes, stadiums, and broadcasters to make better decisions. All this brings in investments in infrastructure, talent development, training, events and so on. Influential governing bodies, i.e. FIFA and UEFA, invest highly in the development of sports, and also in talent and the flow of information has intensified the flow of capital in sports across international boundaries.

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In case of football, although there is a contemporary belief that professional football could be a diminutive business, football as a business is mammoth. Footballers are famous and big clubs are treated as global brands. Earlier it was believed that football cannot make moolah out of more than a tiny segment of the fans’ love for football. Imagine a boy sitting in India wearing a pirated t-shirt of his favourite team watching all the matches on television and yet the club could not make any money out of this. In-fact for decades clubs did not know he existed but now the situation has changed and social media has been playing a pivotal role in doing so. Social media has become an essential element of sports fandom.

Football as we know it has always been a game which is known to unite millions of hearts from all around the world. With FIFA 2018 World Cup screams still buzzing in our ears we can say that football as a sport has a unique kind of unity, since only a finite number of countries qualify, and only two can play at a time, most fans have to choose other countries to root for. As the tournament gets going, more of people starts rooting for nations they might not even imagined themselves supporting. From learning the names of the players to their jersey numbers, people start finding their heroes in them. Only in a sport like football and an event like the World Cup does the globe unite in rapt attention to a single field to a single goal.

With the rampant use of advance technology in every field, football was also not far to fall into its luring. Technology use in sports is increasing rapidly, though football has been slow to incorporate it like other sports have. Technologies like goal line, video assisted refereeing and even the foam spray have greatly contributed to the game of football. Listening to social media chatter has also greatly helped the football clubs to understand the pulse of the fans and to offer them customized experience by providing them information and knowledge about the club’s rich history, football philosophy and the values that the club stands for.

Video Assistant Referee:

To make the game fairer and to uphold the spirit of the game, the football technology innovations team at FIFA considered the Video Assistant referee technology after two years of experiments with hundreds of trial matches, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) gave the nod in March 2018 for the use of video assistant referee (VAR) in football. The 21st FIFA World Cup™ was the first edition of this tournament that adopted video technology as an additional helping hand for referees.

The technology is incredibly simple: an extra referee watches the game and aids the match officials in decision making. In practise, though, it might be very complicated indeed. In the FIFA world Cup 2018 there were 13 officials who were present for selection as the video assistant referee. They sat in a special box in Moscow – no matter where the game was happening – and they did so in their full kit, as if they were ready to enter onto the pitch at any instant when needed. Of those, one was chosen for each game with a team of three assistants. In the box, they received a stream from inside the stadium, made up of the view from a whole host of cameras – including slow motion ones – which the referees can manipulate around. The VAR will watch game completely. If it sees something wrong, it can notify the referee; if the referee thinks something is wrong, he can get in touch with the VAR. Either way, the VAR is only a consultative entity. The final decision ultimately rests with the referee, even if he has been flagged the other way around by the VAR.

The VAR works in the following way that when the incident occurs the referee informs the VAR, or the VAR advises the referee that a decision/incident should be reviewed to arrive at the right decision. In this case, the video footage is reviewed by the VAR, who advises the referee via headset what the video shows. The referee decides to review the video footage on the side of the field of play before taking the appropriate action/decision, or the referee accepts the information from the VAR and takes the appropriate action/decision.

Electronic Performance & Tracking Systems (Epts)

The other major technology FIFA made available at each match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ consisted of a number of tools and communication equipment for both teams. Technical and medical staff of the participating teams had dedicated workstations on the touchline and a special arrangement to communicate with the coaching and medical staff on the bench. Positional data from two optical tracking cameras located on the main tribune that track the players and ball was available to the analysts in real time alongside live footage from selected tactical cameras. The insights from the technical information and the provided communication link allowed for constant real-time interaction that fed into their decisions during the match.

Electronic performance and Tracking Systems (EPTS), include camera-based and wearable technologies, are used to control and improve player and team performance. EPTS primarily track player (and ball) positions but can also be used in combination with microelectromechanical devices (accelerometers, gyroscopes, etc.) and heart-rate monitors as well as other devices to measure load or physiological parameters. There are three forms of physical tracking devices available on the market:

Optical-based camera systems

Positional tracking of players in the field of play as they move around provides the team management an opportunity to understand the consistency of tactic implementation, team chemistry and can also help to understand the team dynamics of the opposition. Dynamic feedback can be obtained from the system which could be used to monitor the player and team performance.

Local positioning systems (LPS)

Real time tracking of the ball and the player movement is possible with this system. Although the system has limited range, the accuracy is pretty high. This system is used in conjunction with Optical-based camera systems to triangulate the exact position of the ball and the player in the field of play.

GPS/GNSS systems

GNSS stands for Global Navigation Satellite Systems. This system provides geo-spatial positioning with global coverage and also has an advantage of having access to multiple satellites, accuracy, redundancy and availability at all times.

There is also sophisticated equipment available that is fitted with the boots of footballers to measure their work rate on the pitch by tracking the distance covered, sprint speed etc. These devices can be used in combination with Micro Electrical Mechanical devices (e.g. accelerometer, gyroscope, compass etc.) to provide inertial load and other medical information.

Social Media Chatter

Social media has become an essential part of the football fandom where many people irrespective of age, creed and ethnicity watch the game while bantering with other fans on their mobile phones, the so-called “second screen”. In 2017, sport accounted for just 1.7 per cent of TV programming but 41 per cent of TV-related tweets, said the data and measurement company Nielsen. And football clubs have been utilizing this space for quite some time now, to promote and advertise their respective brands. A club that understands social media is worth more to its sponsors. In 2012, soon after Manchester United plunged into social media, the club signed a deal for shirt sponsorship with Chevrolet for £47m a year, a world record, as per Financial Times. Companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter offer their services for “free” but in return they share their client identities with big brands like these football clubs, which allow the clubs to tailor their services for each and every individual fan. The clubs can then sell them a club shirt or even a TV subscription for his favorite game. Clubs like Juventus have even applied a Customer Relation Management (CRM) strategy where they drive their fans to their platform and get them registered. The ability to know their supporters and also influence them is fundamental for these clubs to generate higher revenues from their fan-base. Big clubs have even hired teams of video-film makers, web editors, and multilingual journalists to reach out to the maximum possible audience. This also brings in a cultural amalgamation in their organization where the team may comprise of people from different corners of the world to better understand the pulse of the fandom in those regions. Social media listening from various social networks such as Twitter, Facebook can also help the TV broadcasters from around the world understand the public consensus and then tailor their offerings regionally to cater to the audience specific to that part of the world. By doing this, broadcasters can ensure that a number of eyeballs that are engaged with their network increases from around the world.

Role of Analytics in decision making in football

Although fandom does help the clubs to make big business out of their supporters but it does commercialize the game to an extent. Sometimes the clubs treat their fans as cash cows and fans feel that they are not respected for the love they show to their clubs, which is a cause of discontent among a certain segment of the lovers of the game. This can also happen when the voices of the fans are not heard by the club’s board and the management. Fans of big clubs want their clubs to make big money signings and want their clubs to win trophies. When fans feel that they are not respected enough, there can be backlash and this can affect the loyalty of the fans, this will decrease the fan footfall to stadiums and in-turn the season ticket holders will stop visiting the stadiums on match days. Ultimately the revenue of the club is affected and to regain the fans back will become a big issue. This is where analytics can help the football clubs to try and understand the fans and also understand the kind of players that they want to sign. Analytics can help the clubs by providing them with information about the player mentality, player ratings in terms of goals, interceptions, tackles, sprints etc. This will help the club understand the kind of players that would match their requirements. This can preserve the fan interest and engagement with the club.

The game’s world governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) claims that more than 46% of the global population or more than 3 billion viewers watched at least a minute of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as per an online survey conducted by FIFA. Even though Football has traditionally been popular mostly in Europe and South America, but while viewership from these markets may have slacked, the increased globalisation of the game has opened up markets in other regions of the globe. Earlier North American, Australian and New Zealand nationals associated the term “soccer” with the game rather than football, but now Australia and New Zealand have both embraced “football” as a term in a bid to increase integration with the global game. Sport brings millions of people together to achieve social good and football is exactly doing the same by helping to remove the social barricades of religion, gender, ethnicity etc. FIFA does not promote racism and it has devised a three-step procedure in case of discriminatory incidents and has also deployed anti-discrimination observers at all matches hosted by FIFA. With this three-step, “referees will have the authority to first stop the match and request a public announcement to insist that the discriminatory behaviour cease, to then suspend the match until the behaviour stops following another warning announcement, and finally, if the behaviour still persists, to decide to abandon the match” as per the latest norms published by FIFA on their website.

Future technological implementation opportunities

The Football Technology Innovation Department was a key sponsor to the International Sports Engineering Associations 2018 conference showing its commitment to research in football. In FIFA’s continued efforts to use scientific evidence to support and advise any decisions made around the changes to the Laws of the Game, the Football Technology Innovation Department used the opportunity at the ISEA 2018 conference, hosted by Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia to engage with almost 200 stakeholders from the sports engineering community. By sharing the sport’s vision and pinpointing research priorities, FIFA addressed a global network of research institutes by offering a half-day workshop to reflect on some of the pressing questions in football: the ideal playing surface, big data in football and the future of wearables and data collection. Further engagement saw a keynote delivered to demonstrate some of the previous work done on validating tracking systems and challenges of virtual offside lines for Video Assistant Referee (VAR). A number of research projects supported by FIFA were furthermore presented in papers or posters over the course of the four-day conference. FIFA at ISEA 2018 should be the start of a much closer cooperation between football and the sporting world on one hand and the scientific research community on the other. The challenge for both sides is to better understand the needs and functioning mechanisms of the other and the emphasis should be on making as much out of the research as possible creating a win-win situation for both sides.

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