Know the score Jan 18, 2024

KNOW THE SCORE: Future of Football Through Data and Analytics

KNOW THE SCORE: Future of Football Through Data and Analytics

KNOW THE SCORE is a series of talks where TISA Group invites interesting guests to talk about the latest trends, challenges and best practices at the intersection of business, sport and technology.

In this 12th edition of “Know The Score,” Joachim Stelmach engages in a captivating dialogue with Daniel Stenz, a trailblazer in sports analytics who has seamlessly merged his background in mechatronics and engineering with the dynamic world of football. With rich experiences spanning from FC Koln and Union Berlin to the Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer, Stenz’s journey is a testament to the evolving role of data and analytics in sports.

His expertise extends beyond club football to national teams and consulting, offering a unique viewpoint on the technological transformation of the game. This conversation promises to shed light on the cutting-edge intersection of sports, technology, and strategy.


Joachim Stelmach: How did you get into the sports industry?

Daniel Stenz: My entry into the sports industry took an unconventional path. Originally trained in mechatronics and engineering, I developed a background in technology and robotics. However, my passion for sports never stopped and led me to pursue a degree in sports economy despite being offered a scholarship for engineering.

Joachim Stelmach: What was your initial exposure to the sports industry?

Daniel Stenz: At the beginning of my studies at Rhein-Ahr-Campus in Remagen i secured an internship at FC Koln in Germany, which gave me a first glimpse of the environment.. I closely connected with Frank Schaefer, who was the second team coach and later became the first team coach. At that time, analytics and technology were just beginning to make their way into the industry. Operating a camera for match footage was my gateway into the analytics realm, as there were limited analytics tools available. I started with tasks like converting VHS tapes to DVDs due to the evolving technology landscape.

Joachim Stelmach: How did you progress from there?

Daniel Stenz: While still at university and  gaining experience in Cologne, I received an offer to join Union Berlin, a club with minimal scouting and analysis resources. This opportunity intrigued me because I had heard great things from Michael parensen whom i knew from my time in Cologne but more importantly was offered the chance to build something from scratch. The 5 amazing (but very stressful) years in Berlin helped me cultivate my skills on a tight budget and also helped me to grow as a person into leading bigger departments.

Joachim Stelmach: What prompted your move to Major League Soccer (MLS)?

Daniel Stenz: The work that we did at Union Berlin was getting noticed at that time and there were a few offers on the table when I attended a London conference and met the head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS. This interaction led to an offer to work in the MLS. Given I had been working in Germany for almost 10 years and the idea to move to a direct competitor of Union Berlin wasn’t really a choice, the MLS was in my opinion a great opportunity to learn more about the sports-economy in a very interesting athlete and media environment  and stepping out of my comfort zone. This move allowed me to expand my understanding of the holistic aspects of sports beyond just on-field performance.

Venturing into this unfamiliar territory was daunting. My English was functional, but conveying complex ideas during halftime talks was challenging. Nonetheless, I took the opportunity, staying true to one of my favourite quotes “the pressure makes the diamond”. I had a fulfilling time in Vancouver, with new experiences both personally and professionally. We discovered talents like Alphonso Davies, and achieved milestones like qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

Joachim Stelmach: Can you share a specific experience from your time in MLS?

Daniel Stenz: During my tenure with the Whitecaps, I encountered unique challenges due to the different state that football/soccer is within the sports landscape in the US. For example, we signed a promising soccer player for a draft pick worth $60,000, while his twin brother in the NBA was guaranteed significantly more. The US sports environment presents intriguing disparities and opportunities that will find their way into Europe. On hindsight the World Cup 2026 will significantly grow the sport within North-America which will increase the amount of talents we will see from there in the future.

Joachim Stelmach: How did your journey continue after MLS?

Daniel Stenz: Following my MLS experience, I was offered a role with the Hungarian national team, joining other Germans such as Holger Gehrke and Andreas Muller. This provided insights into working at a national level and was a great experience in an amazing country . Subsequently, I accepted an opportunity from Shandong Luneng Taishan F.C. in China, a country undergoing significant soccer investment but searching for structure and stability. Transforming a club with a rich history from near relegation to a solid and sustainable  football culture was a remarkable experience.

Joachim Stelmach: Could you elaborate on your time in China?

Daniel Stenz: China presented a unique cultural challenge, requiring a different approach to instilling club philosophy and culture. Adapting a football  philosophy that  resonates with the local culture was pivotal to achieving success. The experience of being part of this transformation from seeing  a significantly younger team claim victories to winning the titles was incredibly rewarding and taught me valuable lessons in cross-cultural management.

Joachim Stelmach: What’s your key takeaway from your journey through various sports environments?

Daniel Stenz: Stepping out of my comfort zone repeatedly has been a defining aspect of my journey. Each opportunity allowed me to learn, adapt, and contribute in diverse sports contexts, enriching my understanding of the industry as a whole.

Joachim Stelmach: And I guess that finding your own company – Evaluation-Sports – was also stepping out of the comfort zone. Was it something totally new for you?

Daniel Stenz: Yes, it was prompted by several reasons. First off, a lot of people, including clubs and teams, were asking for my opinions and insights. So, I thought it would be a good idea to create a platform where I could easily connect with them. Especially when changing jobs, you often lose access to your work email linked to a specific club. I wanted something that represented me as an individual, not just an employee of a club. That’s why I initially wanted to create this platform – to help people. Back then, there weren’t many choices available for this kind of thing.

Nowadays, there’s a ton of analytics companies and people like me who’ve moved away from traditional club roles. Clubs and sports organizations are complex, so it’s a bit of a different world. Even today, I get multiple messagess every week on LinkedIn from people asking how they can follow a similar career path to mine. I usually tell them that there isn’t a set path because my journey happened more naturally. But I also give them a word of caution – be careful what you wish for. This path requires a lot of sacrifices. When I started, I probably could have made more money working at McDonald’s on an hourly wage compared to what the teams were paying me. You need to be very resilient to handle the ups and downs. Even if you’re making more money in the end, it’s not all smooth sailing when you’re always winning. Success doesn’t always make everything nice. This job demands a lot from your personal and family life. I’ve missed weddings, funerals, and important life events because of the constant demands. With games every weekend and little free time during big events like the Champions League, it’s demanding.

So, I set up my own consulting business in response to those who were seeking my help and advice. It turned out to be really satisfying. In this role, I can analyze clubs and teams from an outside perspective without getting tangled up in their internal issues or history. I can evaluate and say, “Here’s what I think you should do,” or “This is where I think the market is going.” I’ve also extended this consulting beyond just clubs, working with technology companies from different industries who want to understand the potential of detailed data. Ultimately, the focus of this business is on creating insights based on a lot of detailed information, and we can dive deeper into this later in our conversation.

So, Evaluation-Sports emerged as something innovative, and I believe I was one of the pioneers in this domain. We revisited the basics – where does data come from? There was a time when it seemed like everyone wanted to work with data, like it was the new “unicorn.” It’s a bit of a running joke, similar to the early days of the internet, when people just wanted to have data without fully knowing why. But we took a step back and critically evaluated the purpose of the data. Once you have a clear goal in mind for how you intend to use the data, the immediate question becomes: how reliable is the data? We discovered that some of the existing data providers weren’t up to par for the advanced API research I had in mind.

Joachim Stelmach: You went from there to become the director of football/soccer at Sportradar. Can you tell us more about this move that might be seen as kind of strange??

Daniel Stenz: I’ve always been puzzled by the discussions around different data sources and use-cases around betting data, media data, and coaching data. To me they should be combined.. The ideal scenario would involve a single dataset that’s both comprehensive enough for coaches and also speedy enough for betting and broadcasting purposes. 

I was approached by various sports-data companies that saw this similar and wanted to get someone involved that has seen this space evolving over the last 2 decades. Sportradar did stick out with the strategy to transform their offering from betting towards a more holistic offering. For me that would have been a win-win scenario for the whole landscape. Coaches are incredibly hungry for detailed data – I’ve experienced this firsthand. However, they usually have limited resources. In a sports industry where a company that size  does not just provide fast and deep data , the advantage lies in the fact that all the necessary data already exists to support coaching needs. On the other hand the betting industry can massively gain advantage from deeper data and more context as in the end it comes down to understanding performance, especially in a low scoring sport like football.

The 3 years I did spend with Sportradar were amazing and truly opened my eyes to an industry that is massive and has even more potential but at the same time faces serious transformational challenges in order to be able to keep up with this evolving world.

Joachim Stelmach: Why did this journey end for you after 3 years?

Daniel Stenz: Unfortunately things do not always unfold like they were planned to be, especially in very big public companies. The whole technology market took a quite big hit and investments needed for transformation were needed elsewhere. Sometimes the timing is just not right but you always learn. I am very thankful from the experience and the great people I met internally but also externally in rights-holding discussions across the world. My belief in the synchronised holistic offering keeps unwavered and I think there is more of this to come in the future ahead! 

Joachim Stelmach: Back to the use of  big data techniques cand how do you utilize them? We’ve talked about various data analyses for different purposes. Could you provide a broader overview of how big data techniques support your work?

Daniel Stenz: Certainly, in essence, it’s quite simple.. Just like any business, you rely on numbers to quantify your efforts. For instance, if you run a pizza joint and find that pineapple pizzas hardly ever sell, it wouldn’t make sense to order fresh pineapple every Monday. I often use this example to illustrate the concept. It’s essentially business intelligence, a term I prefer. In football, there was a time when decisions were driven by intuition, or, coloquially speaking “the gut feeling”. Former players would become coaches or sporting directors, which I liken to another analogy. If someone has been a pilot for 30 years and retires, they can’t start designing planes the next day without gaining additional skills through further education. They’d need to become better plane engineers or architects. Similarly, the industry and society have evolved over the years. We’ve shifted towards measuring, tracking, and holding ourselves accountable. This is what the analytics approach signifies to me – it’s business intelligence that answers whether my vision is proving successful or not.

Joachim Stelmach: Can you discuss the complexities in this process and the challenges it presents?

Daniel Stenz: The days are gone when a coach could walk in and take on 18 players. The direction of your club matters – are you after short-term or long-term success? Achieving both simultaneously is incredibly challenging. For instance, if you bring in 18 new players, it might lead to short-term success. But for sustained success, a different approach is needed. Both scenarios have different implications and are tough to manage together. So, when you’re aiming for long-term success, you need to measure your progress through incremental steps. This requires quantifiable units and numbers that allow precise measurement. The significant shift is that we’ve moved from making vague statements like “He’s great with his left foot” to seeking quantifiable metrics. Yet, the challenge lies in the fit-for-purpose aspect. Defining what constitutes a strong #9 is complex. Is it strength on the ground, in the air, or something else? These nuances create challenges, especially when translating language into measurable attributes.

Joachim Stelmach: You touched on the concept of gut feeling. In the past, many managers, like Harry Redknapp, seemed to rely on intuition. Players such as Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand emerged without the advanced scouting standards of today. However, gut feelings can also lead to failures and wasted resources. Has this reliance on gut feeling shifted towards a more data-driven approach?

Daniel Stenz: Your analogy of two sides of a coin is quite correct; the coin remains whole despite the flip. I’ve encountered great personalities in sports with this innate gut feeling. Sometimes, there’s a saying – not everything that defies measurement is irrelevant; it’s quite the opposite. The challenge lies in harmonizing these two worlds into one, much like completing the coin. This challenge defined my path, especially when I became one of the youngest scouting directors in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin. Marrying these two aspects is the goal.

Now, technology has surged, offering an array of data points. Things that were unmeasurable two or three years ago are now measurable, and the trend continues. While I don’t envision machines making all decisions, gut feelings remain a valid component of our job. However, I strive to substantiate or counterprove these gut feelings using concrete numbers. Agility, speed, accuracy, and awareness – these are quantifiable metrics. Thus, the challenge lies in translating gut feelings into measurable attributes, especially with technology omnipresent in all aspects of our lives.

Joachim Stelmach: Over the past few decades, technology has rapidly evolved. In this dynamic football landscape, do you perceive any trends or foresee upcoming trends in football scouting?

Daniel Stenz: Certainly, as you rightly mentioned, technology has been advancing exponentially in recent years. To illustrate this, during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we had around 174,000 data points per player per match. Fast forward to Qatar, and we were dealing with a staggering 8 million data points per player per minute. Now, for someone unfamiliar with either the data or football realms, I often use an analogy – I show them a picture of the Mona Lisa with just 100 pixels and then one with high resolution. This visual helps convey the idea that more data points make our data more detailed and descriptive.

However, there’s a crucial consideration – the question of how much data is too much. When we began collecting data, I took even the greenkeepers into account to gather injury-related information. My aim was to correlate injuries with various factors – the player, the timing, and even minute details like the type and duration of a cross during a particular pitch condition. It was essential to collect these data points to uncover patterns. The challenge arises if you omit certain data; then, you can’t retroactively analyze that missing information. While you can investigate weather conditions’ influence or other external factors, you can’t backtrack and understand, for instance, what specific actions the greenkeepers took with the pitch unless you’ve recorded that data.

So, transitioning from the initial challenge of data collection, we now face a new hurdle – transforming these vast datasets into meaningful insights. While we might have eight million data points, it’s likely that not all are relevant or valuable. Yet, I’m confident that within this extensive pool of data, there are novel Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) waiting to emerge. These newly identified KPIs could revolutionize scouting, broadcasting, betting, and reshape the entire landscape of sports data consumption.

Joachim Stelmach: In your perspective, what do you see as a largely unexplored area in football performance enhancement, and could you elaborate on your experience with this aspect?

Daniel Stenz: I believe one of the most significant areas that remains largely unexplored is the realm of cognitive understanding – essentially, what happens in a player’s mind. While we’ve made remarkable progress in enhancing players’ physical attributes using tools like drones, multiple cameras, and skeletal tracking, the cognitive aspect has yet to be thoroughly explored. In our efforts, particularly in China, we delved deeply into this area. Just because a player possesses the capability to execute a pass doesn’t necessarily mean they can identify when the opportune moment arises. Similarly, recognizing an opening in the field doesn’t guarantee the ability to precisely deliver the ball into that space – the example of Toni Kroos’ no-look passes illustrates this distinction. What truly sets apart seeing an opportunity from executing it. In China, we referred to this as “football intelligence.” We successfully enhanced players’ football intelligence, improving their capacity to comprehend on-pitch scenarios, time, and space.

However, it’s crucial to note that this mental aspect must be integrated with practical on-field execution. This involves merging the virtual understanding of game dynamics, time, and space with the tangible application of technical and tactical skills to exploit those opportunities effectively.

Joachim Stelmach: When collecting vast amounts of data, like during the World Cup with 8 million data points, how is this information presented to players in a more understandable way? Is there software that can translate complex data into something accessible for players like Harry Kane or Leo Messi?

Daniel Stenz: Presently, the data visualization process isn’t as seamless as I would like it to be. Ideally, I envision a system that seamlessly integrates various data streams. Video remains crucial since it provides the end picture of events on the field. However, combining this video with underlying data, such as sprint speed or passing accuracy, would be more insightful. I foresee a future where video serves as the base, merged with separate data sources. Currently, major providers either focus on video or data. Moving forward, interactive video content is likely to expand because it’s an effective distribution platform. In essence, we’re just scratching the surface of making data meaningful. I believe the future involves combining these elements to create insights.

Joachim Stelmach: So you envision a future where video and data are more tightly integrated to create meaningful insights. Can you elaborate on how this integration would enhance understanding?

Daniel Stenz: Absolutely. Video is pivotal for grasping the game, and the underlying data adds depth to these visuals. For instance, observing a sprint is more valuable when supplemented with data on sprint speed. The challenge lies in combining these data streams seamlessly. Currently, data providers cater either to coaches with an appetite for comprehensive information or to betting services demanding low latency data. By achieving low latency, comprehensive data, a single source of truth can power the entire ecosystem. The goal of collecting millions of data points is to generate insights, which may vary for scouts and fans, but the essence is insight creation.

I’ve experienced instances where providers delivered extensive 90-page match reports after games, which seemed inefficient. Instead, I advocate for concise, insightful reports that highlight specific areas of interest. However, I’m skeptical about external companies entirely taking over a club’s analytics or scouting efforts. The inherent challenge lies in external entities not fully understanding a club’s match plans or philosophy. This underscores the importance of fostering analytics within the club itself, with dedicated individuals who grasp the club’s DNA and ethos. This approach aligns with your initial question about the interplay between gut feeling and intelligence. Often, gut feelings complement intelligence, but they can also conflict. This is particularly evident in scouting, where assessing a player’s potential requires a balance between art and science.

Joachim Stelmach: How do you approach selecting the right software for your team’s analytical work?

Daniel Stenz: Choosing the right software is a crucial decision, and it’s something many sporting directors grapple with. The challenge lies in the numerous software options available and the pressure to use specific ones for success. For instance, Union Berlin faced budget constraints, prompting us to consider whether expensive coding software e was truly necessary. I often use the analogy of buying a Ferrari for someone who drives like they would a Volkswagen – the software needs to match the intended purpose. I’d call it a “fit for purpose” approach. 

At Union Berlin, where the budget was tight, we had to be pragmatic. We questioned whether we really needed high-priced software when a free video editor might suffice. It all comes down to understanding your club’s objectives, whether it’s player education, winning matches, or something else. Clubs often face choices like investing in a top-tier video analyst or splurging on software. In such cases, prioritizing a capable analyst might yield more value, even if it means allocating less budget for software. This resonates with the idea that analytics is what you make of it. My initial budget at Union Berlin was limited, but we had to start somewhere, demonstrating that effective analysis doesn’t always require exorbitant spending.

Joachim Stelmach: Understanding the club’s goals and allocating resources wisely are key. Can you expand on the challenges you perceive in the industry, especially concerning the integration of various solutions?

Daniel Stenz: The industry currently faces a challenge of disjointed solutions that don’t seamlessly interact. Many solutions are like isolated islands. Bridging these islands to create a coherent analytical framework is the real challenge. For instance, clubs might use GPS vests for training and optical tracking for games, but these data sources might not easily align. Similarly, investing heavily in event data for games while neglecting it in training might not yield comprehensive insights. Integrating technology is pivotal.

The decision-making process for software and technology should revolve around the club’s goals, resources, and the potential to integrate various solutions effectively. By focusing on what truly matters, clubs can achieve meaningful insights without overspending or adopting solutions that don’t truly align with their needs. 

Joachim Stelmach: Thank you very much Daniel for this opportunity and brilliant discussion!

Daniel Stenz: Thank you; it was a pleasure talking to you guys!