Loaded terms in the football data debate

5 June 2019

Football DataCo's recent switch of data supplier may have gone largely under the radar, but how enforceable is the “exclusive" aspect of the deal and could it mark the point where official data starts becoming a cost too far for UK-focused operators? By Scott Longley

In among the plethora of data deals announced in the US in the past year, the news that Football DataCo (FDC), which represents the data interests of all the English and Scottish leagues, has switched data supplier went somewhat under the radar.

The new deal with Genius Group brings to an end the arrangement with Perform Group and was hailed by Genius as a “landmark” agreement for the distribution of the data for over 4,000 games a season.

Much is made in the press release accompanying the announcement of how the pair will be working on providing the betting sector’s “fastest, most accurate and reliable data feed” and how this will feed into “betting innovations” that will “drive long-term value” for betting operators.

We will come back to the question of betting innovations. What is certainly true is that commencing at the start of the next football season, the new partnership undoubtedly has a significance for the operators.

According to Adrian Ford, chief executive at Football DataCo, the key difference to this new arrangement is that Genius Group “will have responsibility to licence use of the data”, a task which had previously fallen to FDC itself.

“This will make the relationship between the data supply and data licence more transparent for betting operators than is currently the case,” he says.

In making this statement, Ford appears to be asserting that in order for someone to access the data from English and Scottish football they need to have a licence. But that is a contentious point.

First, it should be stated that Genius Group isn’t the only company working the FDC data. In fact, Genius Group will be working with data collected by Opta (owned by Perform) and US-based sports data visualisation specialists Second Spectrum.

Moreover, Opta retains the right to distribute this data to the media market.

“But we anticipate BetGenius having access to the data and finding innovative uses of the feed to serve the needs of the betting industry,” said Ford.

Of course, what FDC sees as the needs of the industry and what the operators regard as essential can - and do - diverge. English and Scottish top-level football is undoubtedly, as Ford says, “vital” to the sportsbooks.

But what does it mean when you attach the word “exclusive” to official data?

Policing the terraces
In practice it seems to mean creating a monopoly (or as close as possible to a monopoly) on data so that commercial leverage over operators can be maximised, ramping up the price for operators and the revenues for the sport.

As it stands, data from English and Scottish football have been available with the official imprimatur via Perform. But it also comes via unofficial channels.

FDC seems to be intent on closing down this route but as more than one operator said about this deal, when it comes to exclusivity the issue boils down to enforceability.

In attempting to halt collection at the grounds, the football authorities now rely, according to Ford, on “an active service to disrupt unofficial scouts pirating data.”

“Pirating” is a loaded term, of course. And an incorrect one. Because the collection of unofficial data is the only way of being sure to collect data that does not emanate from FDC’s official source database.

So, shutting down anyone who might wish to provide an alternative data feed is all part of the game of monopoly.

According to operator sources, this “active” effort consists of a number of ex-coppers throwing people out of the grounds on the basis of breaching the terms and conditions of their tickets.

As one source suggested, “it isn’t pretty” - but is it effective? In all likelihood, no. Even Ford admits that such attempts to police grounds are only “successful on a small scale”.

And while he suggests that FDC and BetGenius “have the option… to ramp this up” it is hard to see how this would work in practice.

More heavies on the terraces, after all, would only likely be matched by more scouts, with the only winner being the attendance numbers at lesser games.

Meanwhile, technology moves apace. When it comes to off-tube collection, latency is down to seconds and as one industry source suggested, all the pressure over “official’ data will merely see others “get creative” with their data sources whether that is in-person or via drones.

Then there is the issue of “betting innovations”. It is true is that RAB services and their ilk are changing betting patterns and as such, ball and player tracking may have a role to play in the long-term development of ‘player prop’ bets.

But in the short term, the deal for FDC rights looks like a retrograde step. While the English Premier League has an outsized impact on football betting, it should always be seen in the context of the entire football ecosystem.

For the UK-focused operators, in particular, the potential for more expensive official data comes at a time when margins are already under pressure.

Arguably, the true landmark of this deal might be that it marks the point where “exclusive and official” data becomes a cost too far. And that has implications far beyond the English and Scottish football leagues.