Bringing Silicon Valley Tech to European Football

Team WF (Steffanie Magnus, Nivani Govinder, Phil Schmertz, Michael Nurick) is in London, England and Munich, Germany working on a European football project to investigate the potential market opportunity for team performance and fan engagement solutions by a large silicon valley tech firm in the English Premier League and Bundesliga.

cityofmanchesterstadium_internal_2009I was never a sports fan.  I just never got into it.  I can appreciate a good football game, but the kind of passion a true fan exhibits just escapes me.  I can’t help but reflect on this as I stand here, on the pitch of one of the most iconic houses of football in the world: Manchester City Stadium.

At the start of this journey, I saw these stadiums as simply beautiful achievements in engineering.  But now, at the end of my IBD experience, I see them as conduits for engagement.  Tools meticulously designed to intimately involve the most passionate of fans in the truly thrilling, heartbreaking, elating, devastating, euphoric experience that is football.

Three weeks ago, this was brand new territory for me, my team, and our client.  Our client had asked us to focus on two potential areas where their firm could add value to the English Premier League and the Bundesliga: team performance and fan engagement.  We arrived in country with few contacts, a client who was over 6,000 miles away in Palo Alto, and only our preliminary research to guide us.  Before us, a highly secretive and protective industry extremely cautious of sharing any information with outsiders in fear that a competitor may learn and exploit any advantage.  Our first lead was a connection to London Business School’s Sports Business Club, and thankfully, that lead greatly propelled our in country work forward.

Practically minutes after getting off the plane, we were immersed in the world of football at the first LBS Sports Business conference, networking with former and current leaders of English soccer.   Having the former CEO of the English Premier League validate one of your hypotheses over a pint of beer is a particularly satisfying way to kickoff our in-country portion of IBD. This was just the first of a number of exciting meetings that we had over the following three weeks, as we canvassed the greater London and Munich areas for knowledge and insights on European soccer. On the way to helping soccer clubs maximize their own team performance, we learned that several of our key takeaways for club performance also applied to our project work.


Phil and Nivani at the LBS Sports Business Conference

The Best Decisions Require Data.  In our project work, we learned that European soccer clubs are behind their US counterparts in using data to drive decisions, due to the lack of readily available statistics, the fluid nature of soccer, and some cultural hurdles within club management. Our client, too, lacked the hard data it needed to make an informed decision on the European soccer market. Therefore, in addition to schmoozing with thought leaders in European soccer, we also dug into detailed quantitative data about clubs (revenues, wages, point to payroll efficiency, etc.) to qualify the opportunity and identify the best clubs to target. In putting some hard statistics together, we helped our client validate some hypotheses and disprove others, giving them greater confidence in their decisions.


Pitch team performance data in action

Money Isn’t Everything.  Part of our analysis identified a very strong correlation in the English Premier League and Bundesliga between what you pay players and how many points you generate. However, as we learned in Leading People, money isn’t the only way to drive performance as we also found several clubs, like Borussia Dortmund, which successfully bucked that trend, becoming very successful without a big player payroll. Similarly, as a team of unpaid students, we found motivation through our dynamic project topic, interviews with exciting industry experts, and being part of a high-performing Haas team. In doing so, we were able to deliver a high-quality end deliverable that generated new insights on the European market for a large, global client.


The team in the Adidas box at the Chelsea v. Everton match.

The Fan Engagement Opportunity As a result of our interviews with clubs and fan engagement vendors, our fan survey, and our learnings while visiting four stadiums and one EPL match, we pitched to our client a framework through which to visualize the fan engagement opportunity.  We found that clubs are grappling with two distinct categories of fan: the home fan who attends games in person and the international fan who may have never seen a live football match.  Clubs tend to focus on the home fan base primarily, but the opportunity for international engagement to drive commercial revenue is too large to ignore, especially for top league clubs such as Manchester United and Bayern Munich.  We prepared case studies on how clubs in the EPL and Bundesliga were approaching both fan bases to inspire our client to further brainstorm potential product offerings.


Fan registration kiosk at Chelsea. Club membership is a huge touchpoint for collecting fan data.

We also proposed strategies for market entry, and generating buy-in within the club.  We discovered that clubs are very cautious about adopting new innovations, and generally require proof of another club succeeding at a strategy before adopting it themselves.  So we charted relationship paths from our client’s current partners to clubs in the EPL and Bundesliga, and proposed existing vendors in the market that could serve as complimentors or competitors to our client.  One of our client’s principal advantages are its German roots.  Bundesliga teams have historically built excellent relationships with German business, and leveraging that relationship now, as the Bundesliga is beginning to gain global traction, could lead to some compelling opportunities for our client in the world of football.  Suffice it to say, the Champions League final made right now an exciting time to be researching German football.


Steffanie enjoying a Swiss lunch beneath Eiger in Switzerland

Even Messi Takes Days Off.  When you’re paying a player $20M a year, you need to keep him healthy.  We found that clubs across Europe were investing heavily in a variety of data and analytic tools to manage the health of their players.  We also decided to make our well being a priority and although long hours might be necessary, we weren’t going to burn out. In addition to being heads down on our project, we also made sure to take advantage of being in Europe for three weeks.  This included, but was not limited to, whitewater rafting and mountain biking in the Swiss Alps, seeing the best live band in the world in Manchester (Muse, duh!), walking tours, museum visits, driving 110mph on the Autobahn (fact: a Ford Focus full of passengers and luggage just can’t go faster), and enjoying a Chelsea game from the Adidas luxury box (thanks again Evan!).  But one theme that was truly pervasive throughout our entire experience was food.  From fish and chips, to steak and ale pies, to schnitzel, raclette, fondue, rosti, and Mexican (at least the German version of it), we ate extremely well.  Comparing and contrasting the distinct beers of England and Germany was also a delight.  Although we never did find Phil’s elusive “Das Boot”. Messi needs time off to perform well when he’s on, and we did a good job of balancing delivering value for the client with enjoying the things that Europe in late spring has to offer.


Phil prepares to take on a sampling of Mexican food, as interpreted by a German chef, in a cactus and San Francisco themed restaurant.


Swiss Rosti, straddled by German Weiss bier. Our reward for making it above the snowline in the Alps.

At the end…

Back on the pitch at Manchester City, having spent my final day at the Fan Experience Forum chatting with industry pros (and surprising myself with how much I now know about football), I am proud to say that I get it.  I understand.  And having spent the last 3 weeks behind the scenes of the most influential sport in the world, I am sad to leave it.  I’ll miss my team as well.  We spent A LOT of time together during this experience, but I didn’t get enough.  We were incredible at keeping a sense of humor even during the most frustrating of times.  We were open with our opinions, but also quick to give a supportive word when it was needed.  And thanks to them and our experience in Europe, I might as well say it, ermagherd, I’m a football fan.

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