Inside US Soccer and STATSports’ US$1.5bn deal with the man who made it happen

Sean O’Connor, co-founder and chief commercial officer at STATSports, discusses the sports technology firm’s ground-breaking player monitoring partnership with US Soccer, and explains how the company became a market leader.

Inside US Soccer and STATSports’ US$1.5bn deal with the man who made it happen

Behind-the-scenes training videos have become a regular feature of soccer teams’ social output, and sharper-eyed viewers will have noticed that the majority of players now train wearing black vests which barely stretch as low as their stomach.

While it might be tempting to mistake these gadgets as the latest sporting fashion trend, they actually serve a far more important purpose for clubs around the world.

Indeed, wearable GPS devices have become an integral part of providing coaches with data, enabling them to analyse individual performances during both training and matches by measuring metrics such as distance covered and speed and acceleration, as well as levels of fatigue.

Since being founded by Sean O’Connor (right) and Alan Clarke in 2008, Northern Ireland-based STATSports has seen its system become the go-to player monitoring tool for some of the world’s most prestigious sports teams. Soccer’s Manchester United, Juventus and AS Monaco are already utilising the company’s technology, while it also has partnerships in the US with franchises from the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL).

Up until now, STATSports’ focus has predominantly been on partnering with individual teams. That changed in March when the firm announced a ground-breaking US$1.5 billion deal with US Soccer to create the world’s largest player data monitoring programme, which will see four million registered players in the US wearing the company’s Apex devices.

In the wake of that mega-deal, SportsPro caught up with O’Connor – who is also the STATSports’ chief commercial officer – to get behind the story of the company’s partnership with US Soccer, and to learn more about how it tailors its devices to suit different sports teams around the world.

How did your partnership with US Soccer come about?

It is definitely a landmark for STATSports, and it’s a landmark partnership in this industry – it’s the biggest by a long way for any company. We’ve been engaged with US Soccer for a number of years now in various different forms, including with the men’s national team and some of their younger national sides.

Up until this partnership, there was a bit of a divide because the men’s national team was using one product which was our own, while the women’s side were using another one. So they wanted to take a blanket approach and try and get everyone onto the same system so that they’re able to compare, look across and get the most out of the data.

We had conversations about this a number of years ago, but the process of actually getting this partnership has involved 18 months where we’ve been working with US Soccer while they test and validate the products. A big part of their comfort in what they want is the support service that we offer around the hardware.

They’re trying to do something that nobody has really tried before; they’re trying to get down to the grassroots and academy levels in order to get a really good handle of the data being generated by these kids all around the country so that they can improve the standard of the sport.

Are blanket partnerships something you’re keen to do more of? Are your products well-tailored to that?

The majority of our clients are individual clubs, but as well as the first team, every player across all age groups that trains during the week is monitored and tracked, and the data is then used to help them develop. So it’s just a bigger scale, and because America is so much vaster we have to take a slightly different approach.

It’s definitely something that’s evolving, and we’re in discussions with different federations and even governing bodies to take a more holistic approach to this as well. The great thing about it is that everyone is improving at the same time and benefitting from it, so it’s not just a pocket of players that are pushing the envelope, but the whole sport in that region can grow.

STATSports' Apex device feeds coaches data relating to distance covered, speed and acceleration, and levels of fatigue

How do you have to tailor your devices to different sports?

The fundamental principles are the same across all sports: you’re trying to monitor athletes to perform as best as possible on gameday, so that concept is steadfast throughout.

So whether it’s the National Hockey League (NHL), the NFL or the NBA, right through to soccer, the concept remains the same, but how you then apply it within each sport is different. So 80 per cent is similar across the board, and then 20 per cent is what will be tweaked. We’re probably the only company that has a soccer specific platform, a rugby specific platform, a basketball specific platform and so on. So it’s those 20 per cent changes within each area that we can look at.

When we first started introducing this type of technology we were explaining the concept of GPS, pointing to the sky and having to describe how it all worked. So the whole concept was very new and very out there, and I think there was almost a feeling that this would be a fad that would come and go.

In rugby, for example, we’ve developed a model to evaluate scrums in terms of whether the forwards sink in scrums and then measure their post-scrum acceleration. A couple of rugby clients recently published some research around the high reliability and the data they get from us around that collision detection and analysing that force that happens between rugby players during games.

There will also be several teams who will be doing interesting things to try to push the envelope and get a better advantage, so we try to make sure that each team has the best access to the raw data and to the high-end enriched data to maximise the usage.  

How did you spread the word about your products and get sports teams to buy into your data services?

We haven’t invested huge amounts in marketing and branding. Our focus in the last number of years has been reinvesting everything back into the technology, research and development to make sure that we’ve got the best products. The service speaks for itself.

What we have to this point has grown organically in terms of building awareness. Soccer is the biggest global sport, but if you go to the elite level, that’s only a very small slice at the top, and it can become quite a connected marketplace. So when we started working with Manchester United, we got introduced to Tottenham Hotspur through them. If you’re doing things well you start to build a name for yourself.

Going to the level of consumer and selling to the aspiring soccer players, that’s where brand recognition and marketing will come more into play, but I think the key for us is making sure that our elite clients are using the product well, because that’s where you build from.

STATSports recently added the Brazil Football Confederation to its partnership portfolio ahead of this summer's Fifa World Cup

How have you seen the demand for data in sport grow?

When we first started introducing this type of technology we were explaining the concept of GPS, pointing to the sky and having to describe how it all worked. So the whole concept was very new and very out there, and I think there was almost a feeling that this would be a fad that would come and go. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth, because this is going to be part and parcel of the daily monitoring of athletes in various sports.

It’s not an overreliance on data, but it has become a key cog in a decision making process. The world has gone a bit data crazy, but for me, it’s not about making more and more data, it’s about making more and more use of the data, because it’s only useful if you are able to make informed decisions with it. If you can focus on a metric that works for your team and allows you to make informed decisions about the players’ welfare and their performance, that’s when it becomes crucial. So I think people are starting to be aware of the fact that the data is only as good as you make it and how you can relate it to your coaching staff and your players.

What’s next for STATSports?

A big part of what happens on the back off this US Soccer deal and beyond is making this technology available to the aspiring soccer players who are trying to get to the top level.

Even those playing five-a-side and Sunday league can wear a device that allows them to get information and feedback, so we’re launching the athlete series this summer, which will allow users to have the data on their phone via Bluetooth after playing before they’ve even taken their boots off. They’ll be able to see what they’ve done and how that compares to their teammates.

I think the marketplace is ready for that level of information – there’s a huge demand for data and I think that’s where we can take it to the next level.