Emergence of technology has changed a lot in the sports sector in today’s world. The teams, coaches and academies of different sports have started using analytical tools and software to track their players’ performances in the modern techno-sports era. The key personnel in different sports are starting to believe that analytics, along with technology, are a game changer and are starting to adapt to the change.
Football in particular is a sport where analytics has had a huge impact, especially in the European market. Clubs in India are slowly turning their attention to the need of analytics in the Indian football context. With ISL being the premier tier of football competition in India, it has helped Indian football take a step in the right direction when it comes to football analysis.
In the recent past, several sports analytics companies have come up in India and have integrated themselves with different sports organisations, teams and academies. One such company is SportsKPI who are a major stakeholder of the analytics and technology market in football and kabaddi.
BizBehindSports caught up with SportsKPI founder Naveen Ningaiah where he spoke at length about starting up his own company, company’s role in different sports teams, the impact of analytics in Indian sports and much more and what lies ahead of him and his company. Below are the excerpts from the interview-
NOTE: Comments are edited for clarity.
Is data and performance analysis the next big thing in the Indian sports context?
Typically, data is used to measure metrics of player scouting, player development, player fitness and performance and also match analysis. For instance, in any business if you take sales, revenues, no. of customers etc.., you need data of these metrics to measure your performance. It has become much easier nowadays that more data is captured using new technologies from what you eat, how much distance you ran to how many minutes you played, etc.
Data by itself is not going to be useful. We need to make use of this data to generate information. The number of ways in which we can exploit the information from the data available is going to be explored in the future which can play a major role in the Indian sports context.
From where did the idea of SportsKPI come up? How did you manage to get it off the ground?
I was always passionate about sports from my schooling and college time where I represented my school and college in various sports. I was very keen to work with a sports organisation or a team or a league. However, I didn’t know the exact pathway to get into the sports industry. In order to gain knowledge, I started volunteering at sports events like Davis Cup and Marathons. Then, realising that I am hailing from an engineering background, I started looking at the ways in which technology can be connected with sports.
I started looking at things happening in European and American sports and of course the movie called Moneyball was an inspiration to me. While I was in the Netherlands working for a corporate IT company, I used my leisure time to speak and connect with football and hockey coaches and players. I got a chance to work as an analysis volunteer with Bengaluru FC in their inaugural I-League season where I worked with players like Ashley Westwood and Pradhyum Reddy. I realised that analytics was not a part of many clubs in India and I started looking at how to provide end-to-end analytics solutions to the clubs and that’s how SportsKPI came up in 2014. We were fortunate enough that ISL and ProKabaddi came up that year and that’s where we wanted to start our journey from. The idea was always to work with a sports organisation and my previous experiences with certain start-ups helped me in setting up the company.
How big is your team? Are there any investors and why did you choose Bangalore as the hub of your company?
Our team now consists of 15 people including the interns. We are a bootstrapped company and we are planning to raise funds to develop the company through seed rounds. We have different sections of people in our company. Front-End analysts team who work and travel with the teams on the spot and then we have operations team who collect all the data ,numbers and stats and then we have a team of sports scientists who look at building the models using the collected data and decide on the algorithms to be used to extract the information and also we have a small sales and marketing team. We chose Bengaluru as our hub as the start-up culture was good when we started out here. We do have a small office here.All our people are spread across the country in major cities like Mumbai and Delhi as they work with teams over there.
You worked as a software engineer in different IT companies for 10 years before starting up SportsKPI. How did that experience help you out?
I worked more as an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) consultant throughout my IT career. I worked for over 5 years in Kolkata and another 5 years in Bengaluru in a corporate IT company. What I saw in the corporate sector was that everything is process oriented. To work on a project, people are assigned to it on a process basis. Basically a corporate company functions in a process oriented manner. You need to know every process involved in the company. You need to [be able to] handle sales, marketing, financing and find customers and maintain the relationship which helps you in gaining immense experience. Before moving into the sports industry, I was working on a project in an IT company called End-to-End solutions. It means that the customer is provided with an end-to-end solution for his/her product. I then started applying that in my area of expertise, i.e. the sports sector. I helped teams in their overall season starting from scouting a player to helping them with analysis during their preseason matches and all the way into helping them with player performance analysis for every match throughout the entire season which is an End-to-End solutions package.
Unlike cricket, football and other sports like hockey and kabaddi are growing sports in India in their technical aspects. What impact can analytics have on these sports that could accelerate their growth?
First of all, Cricket is the biggest sport in India and analytics has been used in the sport for a very long time now. It is a sport where almost every parameter related to the sport can be tracked. It was because of IPL, that people started looking at its business model and came up with ISL and Pro-Kabaddi. Every sport has its own difficulties and challenges. Yes, the money has been invested in Kabaddi and Hockey on an Indian scale but these sports are still growing and are in the process of gaining popularity. The analysis part can be implemented into these sports on a larger scale only after the foundation or the base for the sports has been laid down in-terms of fan following, popularity and management level aspects of these sports.
Once these barriers are broken, analytics can play a huge role in the decision making of these sports teams. Like the European teams, players can be scouted using data and their performances can be evaluated which could help in the decision making of the teams.
Top European football clubs in the world use analytics to assess their academy players performances from grassroots level. What changes do you wish to see in grassroots level football in India in an analytics and performance point of view?
The main aim of an academy is to produce talents. The major difference between European football academies and the Indian ones is that players get more game time; nearly 100 matches in a year compared to the Indian academy players who get to play about 40-45 matches a year. The players getting more game time produces more game data so that it can be used to analyse and improve the player’s performances. The analytics part can be implemented well and can be fruitful only if Indian football tournaments are structured in a way that players get regular game time and play around 80-100 matches a year.
The analytics sector is quite streamlined in the European academy football stages. Whereas in India, things are improving definitely as clubs are in the process of implementing analysts in the first team as well as academies and the results will be obtained only in the longer run.
Clubs nowadays use analytics tools and software to sign the right players. What advantage do you think analytics has over the long followed traditional way of scouting a player using professional scouts?
In the case of scouts, people go watch football games to track players. Nowadays analytics is something which works along with the scouts. Analytics helps a scout to keep track of the player’s information in the form of statistics and videos before actually going to a game and scouting the particular player. Some of the cases in the old traditional ways of scouting was that the scouts were very subjective. People say that one player is good and the other player is bad which is very subjective in the sense that they rate the players with what they perceive from the pitch.
Here, analytics helps you with numbers and converts them into data points to have a better understanding of the player’s attributes and performances. Suppose a club needs to select a single player from a group of 100 players for a particular position, analytics can play a huge role in filtering players out to get the right player which saves a lot of time and effort.
We have worked with a couple of Pro Kabaddi teams before. As an example, we worked with one of our clients from their preseason games until the end of the season. We analysed the preseason matches in the same way we analysed the league matches. The biggest problem in kabaddi is that coaches get confused as to when to make use of the younger players in the squad in certain situations during the matches. So in one of the preseason matches, we were able to identify early that there were two good young players who can be used during difficult situations in the matches and we spoke with the coaches and helped them understand our insights. That season actually turned out to be a huge success for the team as well as those two players in which one of those players won the emerging player of the season award and the other player also became a popular figure in the sport.
Just take us through the steps of your work in analysing a football match for a professional team like the kind of software and tools you use. How do you plan your work with your colleagues and your employees in the company?
First, the front-end analyst who works directly with the football clubs will work on the opposition analysis. They analyse the performances of the opposition’s home and away form, attributes of their attacking, defence, transition, build-up play and set pieces and actions of the team with the ball and without the ball. He basically identifies their pattern of play. Now he shares the information that he has extracted from the data to the coaches and the coaches formulate a game plan according to the information provided which will then be explained to the players before the matchday.
On the day of the match, we record the actual match using our own wide-angle cameras which we install in the stadiums after getting proper permissions from the clubs. Once the match is over, depending on the results and requirements from the coaches, we do post-match analysis which will help them to correct the errors and improve on the field.
What other sports is the company planning to venture into and what are the opportunities available right now? Is there anything interesting that you want to reveal now?
We are a multi-sport focused organisation. We are currently exploring our way into tennis analysis. We are trying to study the game and develop kids who play tennis regularly. From the Indian point of view, our country does not have well established tennis players except for a few players. We want to help kids to perform better in tennis so that they can achieve their dream of playing tennis professionally. We took part in the Bengaluru Open recently and spoke with many top level players and coaches to get a clear idea about how analytics can help the sport grow in our country.
We do see a lot of potential opportunities in the field of Olympic sports like Rowing, Boxing and other athletics. I visited one of the rowing centres in Allepey, Kerala. I was able to meet and speak to one of the top coaches over there called Jose Jacob who happened to be a Dronacharya Award winner(2014). I did research about rowing and found that a lot of work was going behind the scenes regarding analytics in rowing. Every stroke by a rower generates a lot of data points. I felt that the technique of rowing can be improved by implementing video and data analytics into the sport.
Who do you think are the sports analytical giants in the European stage and what difference do you see in the Indian companies compared to them?
US based company Stats Perform holds a huge share in the sports analytics market. They are a huge data collection company. Similarly, Hudl is a big company who mainly does video analysis for different kinds of sports. There is another UK based company called Stats Bomb who deal with football data. There are also a couple of big scouting companies called Wyscout and Instat. In the recent past, AI and machine learning companies who track and record the statistics of the players have come up. For example, Second Spectrum is a company that works with the Premier League(England).
Cricket is one of the biggest sports in India. Many big analytical companies around the world have entered the market in cricket. The technology market of other sports in India is slowly but constantly growing. ISL is just 6 years old. You can’t compare ISL with the likes of Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga. Kabaddi is an internal sport which is popular in India and the market is growing there. I would say opportunities and scopes will open up as the market is growing. For example, Dream 11 has explored their way into the top position in India in terms of fantasy sports.
In the next 5 years, We want to be the major go-to sports analytics company in India who works on multiple sports. We want to be the ones who can implement our analysis on the pitch and see the right results coming in. We also want to work in lower markets of sports like helping in the digitisation of sports associations and academies, helping them to have scouting data and information of every player of every league being played in India.
In the end, we would like to help different sports teams and academies to improve and develop their players so that they can successfully compete against players across different countries in different sports.
Interviewed by Pragathis Kumar