Football’s brand new heavies

28 August 2019

The strange case of a texting Hull City fan being confronted by security guards on the hunt for unlicensed data collectors has nothing to do with sporting integrity or illegal betting. Instead, writes Scott Longley, it should spark a debate on whether a monopoly on live football data is permissible, and sustainable.

There can be no doubting the tension between the English and Scottish football leagues and the betting operators is being ratcheted up.

That can be the only conclusion to be drawn from the story from the opening weeks of the British football season when it emerged via social media that a fan at Hull City v Middlesbrough had been confronted over his texting during the match, being accused of ‘illegal’ data collecting.

The heightened focus on the policing of football grounds by the English and Scottish leagues follows the deal reached in the summer between football, under the auspices of the Football DataCo, and data provider Genius Group.

That deal saw Perform replaced as the official data collector and the press release that accompanied the news said the pair would hope to “maximise the value of live data.”

In order to achieve this, FDC made it plain at the time they would be relying on enhanced security measures to enforce their own exclusivity. Hence, the teams of security being deployed by a company called Comsec at football grounds up and down the country.

According to FDC such measures are a right and proper enforcement of the terms and conditions on the tickets regarding the collection of data. Yet, whether this nuance has reached the level of the security guards themselves is debatable going by the exchange as reported from the KCOM stadium in Hull.

Instead, accusations of court-siding and unregulated betting have been flying around which only serve to confuse issues. Make no mistake; this isn’t a debate around either integrity or illegal betting. This is a commercial dispute pure and simple and it should be viewed as such.

What is at issue is whether football has the right to attempt to create a monopoly in live data. This can rightly be questioned. That is why we have laws around competition and notwithstanding the terms and conditions printed on the ticket, this is a question which is yet to be truly tested in court.

Coming to blows
It doesn’t have to be this way. The aim of maximising the value of live data should be seen in the wider context of the commercial relationship between football and betting.

The proliferation of shirt sponsorships, betting partnerships, direct advertising and indirect advertising benefits that accrue to football makes an interesting frame of reference for this new money grab. On the one hand, football is willing to take the money from the marketing activities of the betting companies; on the other it also wants to make their operations more expensive and, therefore, less profitable.

Throw into the mix the recent controversies around the shirt sponsorships at Derby County (with 32Red) and Huddersfield et al and the non-sponsorship by Paddy Power, and it is easy to see why the sight of people being physically thrown out of grounds arouses sensitivities.

By citing court-siding as an issue (at least by inference in the press coverage), football is succeeding in confusing the issue– and references to data being sent to “unregulated gambling operators” raises the level of misinformation even further. At the very least, FDC and the clubs owe their fans the truth about why they are suddenly concerned about people texting at football matches.

FDC says this is all about integrity, but that again is a vexed issue. Attempting to enforce via a monopoly a single source of data is not only questionable under the terms of the European Database Directive but it also creates a number of integrity risks rather than solving them. A single source of data produces a single, potentially corruptible point of weakness. A single supplier of data means the reach of important integrity measures through contractual arrangements is likely to be smaller.

Compare this with Germany where the German Football Association (DFB) where all the major sports data providers, including Genius Group, Sportradar and Stats Perform, have access to collect their own data and all are signed up to do so, maximising the reach into the downstream market.   It is an open access system with sub-licences available to all.

That would appear to make more sense than attempting to create a monopoly on facts and courting controversy by employing heavy-handed security in the stands. Sources suggest the attempt to disrupt data collection has continued throughout the first weeks of the season.

The question will now be, if the expulsions continue, whether this escalating issue can be resolved without a full legal battle. What is certainly true is that against a backdrop of a testier relationship between football and the betting operators, more flashpoints are likely to occur. That is a situation that, it might be argued, benefits neither football nor the betting industry right now.