The FA’s Russell James talks digital transformation, Cognizant, and growing grassroots soccer

Russell James, director of digital engagement at England’s Football Association (FA), outlines the governing body’s partnership with its new digital partner, Cognizant, and explains how it aims to develop the women’s and grassroots games by adapting to changes in the digital environment.

The FA’s Russell James talks digital transformation, Cognizant, and growing grassroots soccer

Since its foundation in 1863, the Football Association (FA) has overseen all aspects of the amateur and professional game in England, making it the oldest association in world soccer. Established as it is, though, the national governing body has to grapple with the changing demands of its audiences.

With organisations across the sports industry recognising technology and increased digitalisation as a means to connect with fanbases in new ways, the FA is striving to stay relevant in a much-changed landscape. This year, the organisation has launched a new data-driven strategy to do just that, bringing on board tech company Cognizant in November to orchestrate a ‘digital transformation’ of its various activities.

Following the announcement of the Cognizant partnership, SportsPro caught up with Russell James, the director of digital engagement at the FA, to find out how the body plans to grow grassroots participation, particularly in the women’s game, by catering to the ever-changing demands of the mobile-first fan.

SportsPro: Firstly, why did you select Cognizant to oversee your new digital strategy?

RJ: As part of our digital strategy that was begun 18 months ago, one of our key goals is to engage directly with fans and players and enablers— the people who operate and run grassroots football—and clearly digital is the key tool to be able to do that in a modern society.

We didn’t start with saying we just wanted one partner, but the more we got into it, we realised that Cognizant could bring the mix of back-end expertise we needed as well as content engagement and project management. Their initial proposal was very different to the one they put forward in the end, which showed they listened to what we wanted and looked at the systems we already had in place.

We were also looking for somebody who was going to work with us and have different strings to their bow that they could stretch with us moving forward, but also someone who found this work really important to them as well. Cognizant have some branding on the digital products that we’re creating and they’ve got some sponsorship assets with the broader FA brand as well, so it’s a really strategic place for them, and that level of buy-in was important to us.

What will Cognizant’s responsibilities be?

We are trying to create a database that aggregates data about an individual so everything the FA knows about you is all in one place. Then on the external end, we will be building tools or digital platforms or enhancements to things we might already have that are engaging people, supporting their football, making it easier, more rewarding and more personalised.

We are then going to be leveraging the insight we’re getting from these platforms to make that experience even better. There are so many opportunities for people to get involved because of the breadth of what the FA does, so we’re trying to increase the frequency with which people are participating in a single role, but also trying to add to their role, and so give them more opportunities across the game.

Cognizant has already developed a platform that aims to encourage women and girls to get involved in sport. Will that platform be built upon and where will it move on from here?

We launched a website ahead of the women’s European Championships in July, and that platform is targeting girls between the ages of eight to 14 because that’s a key audience for girls getting into football. There aren’t a lot of places for them to go to get more content that’s relevant to them around the game so we are providing that, but the site also helps them find opportunities to play locally.

We’ve improved some of the search functionality since the launch for the local opportunities to play, and we’re continuing to evolve the product so that it’s got more of the women’s game represented within it. Above all we’re trying to create a platform with a purpose, and that purpose is to get girls into the game.

We’ve had over ten thousand searches for girl’s football, which, when you think about how many young girls play football, is a significant change. We’re continually doing research to see which parts of the site are working well, and which parts less so, in order to invest and make it better. It’s a small but very important part of the overall puzzle we’re navigating in order to double participation and the following of the women’s game.

How important do you see the building of digital communities around the women’s game? Will you target digital engagement in other ways?

I think it’s massive, fundamentally. I previously led the marketing team here, so we spent a lot of time learning to understand what the motivations were to get girls and women into the sport more generally. One of the things that always comes up in marketing campaigns is that it’s all about that fear of judgement.

If you can provide platforms that create a sense of community and give confidence to girls or to women, that’s only going to do good things in terms of helping them to get involved in the game in some shape or form. I think it’s crucial to build a digital community around it; we’ve got a very active social media team as well on the women’s channels, and that’s another place digital that we see as being really key.

We also have lots of video content that we are producing which seeks to demonstrate how down to earth these elite players are and hopefully provide the aspiration for a young girl out there who sees it and thinks, ‘well I could do that— I could be like Steph Houghton.’ All of these strategies need to come together, and then we just need to make it as easy as possible for girls and women to find some football, and that will hopefully set them off on the right path.

Similarly, Cognizant worked with the FA to create a grassroots website. How will your partnership develop the grassroots approach digitally?

We recently launched a mobile version of a digital platform that we’ve had for some time called Full Time, which serves about two thirds of the affiliated leagues, which is about two million people who take part every weekend (or most weekends, depending on the weather…).

The Full Time service creates a platform for administrators of those leagues to organise fixtures and results, and league tables can go on there. You can therefore have people checking to see what the next fixture is or where they are in the league— it makes this applicable and puts it all in one place.

A big part of the first work Cognizant did was to create a mobile-friendly version of the website from scratch. They thought about the way in which people use mobile phones and how you can represent that information in a much more intuitive way. It’s only been live for just over a month but that will continue to evolve in terms of what types of information is in there.

How have Cognizant’s platforms performed? Have you seen any short-term effects and how will this influence your future digital strategy?

A month in, we’ve seen some growth with the new mobile site being available. There’s still a bit of settling down to be done before people get used to the new service and then we expect to see some more growth in the usage.

The more important thing for us is getting people to sign in or sign up if you haven’t already got an FA profile in order to follow your favourite team and things like that. This means we can get more information about our followers and start to understand more about you and what your interests are and where you are. Then we can start to think about how we can engage you in your experience.

We know for example that a lot of teenagers drop out of football between the ages of 13 and 16 and often people find it hard to get back into football after college or university, or when they’re moving towns for work. By knowing that and by having those people within our database and being able to identify who they are, we can put targeted messages and programmes together for those audiences specifically to help them stay in football.

The front end platforms are therefore important because they’re providing a service that’s making it easier and more rewarding and more personalised for the individual, but we can then target people in a much more direct and personalised way to really help them get the most out of football.

Are there any big pieces of work coming up with Cognizant in terms of women’s soccer or grassroots soccer that you can talk about?

We want to take that grassroots product even further, so we want to think about how we can make it even easier for grassroots football to get organised and how digital can play a part in that. We’re seeing quite a big trend at the moment with kids tracking how many games they’ve played or how many goals they’ve scored and things like that, so there’s this broader theme in our society in terms of health and fitness to quantify things— people want access to more game data.

We are therefore looking to see how we can bring that sort of information into our products and see how a coaching, player or refereeing history can be developed and would be rewarding for lots of people. The other thing we’re working on is the upcoming 2018 Fifa World Cup. We’re looking to see how we can improve the experience of being an England fan digitally, and what we can do to make the experience a bit more engaging, rewarding and personalised.

We are trying to do things that we think we’re both uniquely placed to do and that we think uniquely add value as well. For example, if you’re a player and a fan, we want to bring those two worlds together and make life simpler for people. It’s about trying to find our own territory to engage people, and that’s the top of what we’re working on with the Cognizant team.

How else does the FA intend to make changes in terms of digitalisation?

Our mode of operations at the moment is mobile-first, which isn’t necessarily apps, as they can be quite an expensive investment with a limited number of people using them. I think whilst this is a programme of work that has some really key outcomes to affect— in terms of how the game is played, who’s playing the game, the quality of that experience— there are some more fundamental impacts this can have on the FA as we become more digital-savvy.

As we digitalise, we can develop the ability to engage people with different parts of what we do, and that will bring changes in terms of the types of people we employ and the agencies we work with. It’s an exciting but challenging time to be in such a fast-paced environment with new types of technology becoming available and the changing expectations consumers have.

Can you talk to me about any other strategies for growing women’s soccer, and especially digital fanbases, around the women’s game?

We’ve had two sold-out games for the Lionesses in the last week and there are lots of different things happening, including creating 800 hubs for girls to play football in across England. I think we have the right ingredients now with what we’re doing digitally, so it’s just about making all those things work better together in terms of improving the quality of that experience.