With the new Premier League football season just three weeks old, it is the busiest time of year for sports data business Opta. Indeed, given its acquisition by Perform Group last summer and with the FIFA World Cup to focus on this summer, it has been a busy year.
Taking a lead from American sports, which have long been known for their obsession with performance data, Opta has perhaps done more than any other organisation to bring the same level of analytical rigour to the UK sports scene, and particularly to football.
The brand was founded in 1996 as part of Sky Sports’ nascent coverage of the Premier League but was nearly shuttered before Aidan Cooney’s Sportingstatz business took on the assets and the senior management to found Opta as a new company in 2002.
It wasn’t until 2006 that it put in place the data collection process it still uses today, which involves a three-person team dedicated to counting the shots, blocks, tackles and more in every game the company covers. That opened the floodgates for Opta to expand its offering to new sports, leagues and types of data, leading to the company’s acquisition by FTSE 250-listed Perform Group for around £47m in 2013.
Opta’s marketing director Simon Banoub moved to Perform as part of the acquisition and five months ago he was promoted to marketing director of the whole group, which also houses other brands including Goal.com, the biggest football website in the world with 46 million unique users per month, he says.
Banoub was also central to Opta becoming the brand it is today, better known by consumers than almost any other in the UK that is built entirely on its data, even though the company’s revenue comes from business-to-business (B2B) customers such as football clubs, betting companies and media owners.
Marketing Week (MW): Why has Opta marketed itself as a consumer brand, despite its B2B business model?
Simon Banoub (SB): We have a lot of people within the Opta team who believe in the power sports data has to add something to the game you are watching as a fan, and they were desperate to tell that story. Some of our consumer-facing marketing, especially in social media, has been about giving those guys a voice. Once you get that fan-facing demand you get the pull-through from the B2B channels and that’s how we make money.
MW: What marketing tactics and channels did you use to generate consumer demand for Opta’s data?
SB: We focused on three main channels. First of all, social media: the statistical content and facts that we push out work beautifully in Twitter. The format works and the content is very shareable. That organically grew and we do it now in multiple languages and countries. We now have 800,000 followers and get 50,000 retweets a week.
Another channel is content attribution; we go to clients who are using the data to encourage them to publish the source. The third is PR. There was a big push behind the scenes at Opta, letting people in and showing them how we collect the data. We turned Opta into a Disneyland for sports data nerds.
MW: Richard Ayres, formerly digital innovation consultant at Manchester City Football Club, has coined the word ‘datatainment’ to describe entertainment powered by data. Is that what Opta does?
SB: I know Richard Ayres reasonably well and he has said it to me a couple of times. Whatever you think about invented words, it sums up what we are trying to do. It absolutely is a real phenomenon. Access to the data and the ubiquity of it now isn’t the issue. The issue is how well you visualise and contextualise it. How are you going to make it relevant, live and in-game, and through which channels will it reach the fans? That can be a tweet, a graphic or [Sky Sports commentator] Gary Neville on his touchscreen at half-time.
MW: Are you collecting more and more data every season or do you cut back as well?
SB: It’s always more. Professional clubs are demanding more data from more leagues. We help them scout and recruit players, so if we ask them if they want us to analyse the Mexican league they will instantly say yes because they want to compare players globally. As soon as you do that you can sell data to Mexican broadcasters and newspapers.
In terms of the collection system itself, we add stuff every year but it can’t be to the detriment of what we’re already collecting. It’s 1,600 to 2,000 individual bits of data for each game.
MW: With the start of the Premier League following a World Cup this summer, is now a busy time for Opta?
SB: Yes, the start of the football season is busy. Ramping up for that we will often have new leagues and customers coming on-stream for the first time. Tournaments are always huge too and they’re difficult because they mean you don’t get any down-time to develop stuff for the new season.
Product development and the sales cycle go on all year round but there are hotspots for training up analysts and getting things ready. The marketing department, I like to think, is embedded within all the processes as much as it can be and maintaining the Opta brand – how and why we do things – is very important to everybody in the company.
MW: How do you market Opta’s data to prospective customers? Is the product always the same?
SB: The raw materials are the same. You’ll have a data feed from the game, then there’s a product layer on top of it, depending on which market you are talking to. There will be an intermediary who is the graphics producer and we make sure our data works with their software.
MW: Given its line of business, one would imagine that Opta is very good at managing its own marketing data – is that the case?
SB: I’d say efficient but not spectacular. We have customer data in the same way a lot of businesses do and, in the case of Opta, we have CRM systems and a single customer view. When you broaden it out to Perform Group, it’s a company that has grown through various acquisitions so we have had to bring a lot of customer data together and implement new CRM systems.
We measure our social traffic, reach, mentions and retweets across all our accounts. Then we have the usual return on investment measures from B2B marketing events, emails and so on.
MW: Finally, who’s going to win the Premier League?
SB: The guys in the office would probably say Chelsea. One thing I have learned since working for Opta is that I know very little about football. I used to think I was really on the ball but I’m just blown out of the water by those guys.
Simon Banoub: CV
April 2014 – present
Director of marketing
June 2009 – April 2014
Director of marketing
July 2008 – June 2009
Head of marketing
January 2006 – July 2008
Marketing communications manager
March 2004 – January 2006
International marketing manager
Leeds Metropolitan University
November 2003 – March 2005
Business School marketing manager
Leeds Metropolitan University
Simon Banoub on…
We went down the route of growing Opta as a consumer-facing brand so that companies would buy the data from us but they would be happy to publish the Opta logo next to it to add credibility. We’ve gone from a stage where we had to beg and badger people to use it to being able to charge people to do so in some cases.
Part of the skill they have is knowing that something is going to be interesting before it happens. There was a game last season where Manchester United were making loads of crosses into the box and weren’t scoring. At 17 or 18 crosses our boys knew instinctively that it was coming up to a Premier League record for crosses in a game. They were telling the broadcasters this and it became the narrative. Then the newspapers were talking about it the following Monday.
There’s a lot of work going into predictive analytics and betting customers are using it for modelling odds, but I think football is too fluid ever to be truly predictable, which is why it’s still interesting and why people who accuse companies like Opta of taking the joy out of football never win that argument. The last Premier League season was massively unpredictable.