I was fortunate to be able conduct an interview with Bill Gerrard; someone I consider to be an expert in the field of data analytics in sport.
Bill is currently a Professor of Business Management, at the University of Leeds Business School.
Bill shared with me his journey in sports analytics.
1. How did you first get involved in Sports Analytics?
I had a passion for sport and wanted to see if I could apply my skillset in data analytics in a sporting environment.
My initial interest was in football transfer fees and having showcased this at various events.
A question that kept on cropping up was could I find a method to value players?
At that time my skillsets were moving away from economics into finance, so I spent the next 18months I looked at trying to build a regression model (used to predict outcomes) based on data for 1350 transfers, for a stock broker. I developed a player evaluation system (called Soccer Transfers) that was given mainstream attention after it was featured on the BBC's The Money programme. This work initially focussed on Tottenham Hotspur’s transfers and the overspend my model suggested they had made.
This then led me to work with Southampton, a collaboration that was organised by the BBC….and that’s where it all began.
2. What was the landscape like when you first started?
It was a completely different data landscape then to what it is now.
Back then I used the data from the Rothmans Football Yearbook.
The information it contained was very basic in comparison to now.
Who played, Who scored, Discipline, Transfer fee/date etc.
Figure 1 - The Rothman's Football Guide
This then evolved in the mid-90’s by OPTA and Prozone…enriching data through the use of video.
3. How has it changed?
The data landscape has now gone to new heights take wearables…they give something like 24 data points per second being collected live.
Detailed information with regards to what players are doing on and off the ball.
From a data landscape there are so many different tools out there right now, at times it feels like one is coming out every week.
R, Python, SAS, SPSS to name a few, yet I can still manage to do most of my work through Excel and PcGive (Data Modelling Product).
4. Please tell me about a particular highlight for you working with elite teams?
There have been a few….
Being featured on the BBC's The Money programme.
Meeting and working with Billy Beane.
In my first full season of working with Saracens and Andy Farrell at Saracens Rugby team where they won the first Premiership trophy in their history at Twickenham.
5. How did you find working in rugby and then moving to football, and also working in America and the UK?
American teams were far more open to working with someone who had an academic background, than those in particular within English Football.
There was more of an openness and willingness to work together.
There were also noticeable differences between Rugby teams in the UK and Football (Soccer) teams.
There was much more of a collegiate atmosphere in rugby, the coach’s office tended to be a lot more open plan.
Rather than…I think I found football clubs a lot more hierarchical in their structures, and if the “gatekeeper” isn’t the Football Manager/Head Coach/Director of Rugby then it’s a lot more difficult to build a relationship.
I have never worked for a football club in the UK, yet I had really strong relationships with the team at AZ Alkmaar, Saracens, London Irish and with the ownership group at Oakland. There was an appetite to want me there and to work together.
6. I know at AZ Alkmaar Billy Beane was an advisor for the club, did you have any dealings with him and if so, how was it.
Billy is a fantastic individual, and person and we keep in touch. I am forever grateful for him for me getting involved. If it wasn’t for Billy I wouldn’t have been working with AZ Alkmaar.
7. Did he try to impart any of his Moneyball theory onto the club?
At AZ, Billy Beane and Robert Eenhoorn (General Manager, AZ Alkmaar) are cut from the same cloth.
They see the world in the same way.
Robert runs a very evidenced based approach; he ran the Dutch national baseball set-up from a number of years that’s why AZ wanted him he was a very well-respected sports administrator.
Figure 2 - Robert Eenhoorn (General Manager, AZ Alkmaar)
He was perfect to move to AZ, a club that was very similar Oakland a relevantly small market club that was trying to compete effectively in a very sustainable way with Feyenoord, Ajax, PSV.
8. Do you have any thoughts on the future of sports analytics and where it is heading?
Better understanding of spatial analytics.
The analysis of what players are making off the ball and out of possession.
In football/soccer all of the data that was collected through the late 90’s via Prozone and that has grown further arms and legs subsequently was all about what was happening on the ball.
It was all about what was happening in a “ball event”.
The majority of the decisions that players are making is about where they position themselves.
Even the best players in a game are going to be without the ball more in a game than be with it. What are they doing in that time?
Being in that right place to receive the ball and understanding where your teammates are when you have it.
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