With millions of dollars on the line, athletes are discovering the power of their own personal data. Once exclusively used by sports leagues and teams to maximize performance and profits, data analytics has become a tool elite athletes count on while negotiating their million-dollar contracts.
The trend gained attention this past spring when Kevin De Bruyne, the 30-year-old midfielder for Manchester City FC, decided to negotiate with the powerhouse club without an agent. Instead, he hired a software company called Analytics FC. The company uses a database across 100 leagues and multiple data models “to highlight players that contribute to their team results in a holistic way, rather than just goals scored or xG (expected goals) earned,” Analytics FC founder and CEO, Jeremy Steele, said in an interview.
The company’s flagship product, “The Transfer Lab,” effectively calculates the expected goal difference each player contributes to the team by analyzing the player’s every action on the pitch. “We communicate the output from these [algorithm calculations] in a way which makes sense to club executives and coaches by using football language to describe them,” he added via email.
Negotiations lasted six months, but in the end, the club’s executives found the Belgian player’s argument persuasive enough to make De Bruyne the best-paid player in the Premier League, signing him to a four-year contract for $27 million a season.
De Bruyne set an example for athletes who want to control the data that leagues and teams have collected for decades. “This is a revolution led by the athletes,” John Kosner, the president of Kosner Media, said in a recent interview. “I think what is unique at the moment is how athletes themselves are sort of leading this revolution.”
One of these revolutionary efforts is called Project Red Card, and it started on the other side of the Atlantic. Last year, some 400 players across the English and Scottish leagues threatened to take legal action to establish who owns player-performance data. Data analytics companies can track over 5,000 data points per game observing player performance. The information is used by everyone from team scouts to video-game developers to betting companies. Until recently, that data has proliferated largely unchecked. The Project Red Card group is arguing that a player’s performance data is actually personal and is being exploited for financial gain without their consent. If successful, players could receive tens of thousands of dollars in compensation.
On the U.S. side, athletes are following in the footsteps of management when it comes to data. Analytics is ingrained in American sports, where data has been used to make better, more effective business decisions à la Moneyball. From sabermetrics to infrared cameras to wearables, team owners have invested in ways to collect information about athletes—in recent years with the increasing interest from PE and investment firms seeking robust returns.
More often than not this data were collected without players’ consent. When the NFL put chips in players’ shoulder pads, “some of the players did not even know they were wearing chips,” commented Brian Kopp, a pioneer in sports data analytics, who started talking about the subject 12 years ago.
Sports leagues and teams defend and promote the use of wearable technology, claiming they impact “performance optimization” or injury prevention. However, the wide-ranging consequences of collecting data and the ultimate ownership of that information are still gray areas. In their 2017 collective bargaining agreement, the NBPA pushed for a set of rules governing the use of wearable technology by the league and its players. According to the agreement, NBA teams won’t be able to use the data collected via wearable technology against players in contract negotiations. Kopp, now the CEO of Phoenix Sports Partners, thinks in the future there will be “more of a collective conversation. The caveat was always at the college level, where the players don’t have a player’s union. But I think that all changes now with the NIL ruling.”
Joshua Ebrahim, CEO of ProFitX, has a similar take. He, too, expects the new NCAA rules around name, image and likeness rights will change how young athletes look at data and its ownership. A former athlete agent, Ebrahim understands the importance of data while negotiating contracts. So he founded a software company, ProFitX, which today uses more than 90 data points compiled in the platform and AI technology to display real-time contract values and two-year projections to consult teams, players and fans.
In April the company ran a pilot program with 20 NBA teams. “I think these kids are going to come into it with much more acumen at a younger age, and maybe there’s an avenue where they start to value this data even more,” Ebrahim said. “We never had this kind of data as agents. If we did, it would have been very powerful.”
The potential power of data in negotiating contracts is kindling a new industry. This summer Analytics FC will be advising two Champions League winners, two current England internationals, and an FA Cup winner, though the company declined to name them, citing privacy considerations.
In the U.S., Steve Gera, a former NFL coach, started Breakaway Data and is consulting with a group of players in the league. “We’re basically helping them access their data, visualize it, and then customize it in a way to where they can look at their data profile,” Gera said. “The reason why De Bruyne had to hire his own [data] team is because there’s no club that wants to actually pay players more.” He believes it will be customary for players to own and use their data in negotiating with teams in the future.
And while De Bruyne decided against using one, data-savvy agents are still likely to play a huge role in negotiating contracts. “Analytics are important and crucial to make a case,” said Leigh Steinberg, the agent who secured Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes’ record-breaking 10-year, $503 million contract. “The key is to analyze that data and show that he is statistically prolific and that he is better than the rest, using the facts. There is no arbitration, no Supreme Court in sports. How will we prevail? Stats are black-and-white values.”