Algorithms and Alchemy at the World Cup

By | June 23, 2014

If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve taken a break from one of today’s World Cup matches to check your work email. I understand. I am living first hand with soccer obsession in the form of a fanatical 8-year-old kid.

Not a day goes by that I don’t get updated with the latest stats and scores. There are also his odd pleas that I tell him he looks like Lionel Messi, when in fact he’s more of the Cristiano Ronaldo sort. (Note: The kid actually had me draw and abdominal six-pack on his tummy to further both likenesses along. It worked!)

My son is PASSIONATE that “his” teams win – so much so that he’s dumped his own native Mexico to get better aligned with his favored bracket.  My kid is also intuitive – with a nuanced sense of the beautiful game that would make Maradona smile.

For decades, passion and intuition were some of the guiding principles in crafting the world’s best teams.  But, like so many industries that are fueled by gut, the world of sports is changing fast.   While players battle it out on the pitch, behind the scenes, the best leagues are relying on data-driven gamesmanship. Think Moneyball for futbol.

The idea – and execution – of big data analytics in sports is real.  And, even if your business isn’t sports, some of the more common analytic use cases for leagues are relevant across many industries.  What kinds of analytics are the big leagues using to up the ante?

  • Getting to Know Your Fan Base –  Getting to know your customer is a universal challenge for any industry.   Fans today have more channels than ever to follow and engage with their favorite leagues or teams.  Some leagues are just starting to take advantage of analytics to understand their fans.  What if you could capture fan interaction across web, mobile and venue to drive offers, interactions and relationships? A major digital sports organization we work with has launched comprehensive analytics to do just this.


  • Building a Personalized Relationship – The name of the customer game today is personalization. Digital consumers expect every digital interaction they have to be personalized. The world of sports is no different.  Once you know your fan-base – and the individual zealots who make-up that base- you can develop a relationship based on their preferences. Favorite players? Venues? Merchandise?  All of these insights and more can be used to craft data driven marketing messages that hit home.


  • Player Optimization – Whether in a Fantasy setting, or for game day, the ability to optimize player selection and performance using data is the stuff legends are made of.  These highly specialized algorithms are starting to influence back-office intuition, paving the way for a more scientific approach to player selection.


Working in analytics, this balancing of art and science is one of the more common themes I run-up against every day.  The truth is, there needs to be room for both.   And, if you’re watching the World Cup, you’re seeing the high-stakes intersection of gut and instinct at work.

And, whether its alchemy or algorithms, the world is watching and waiting to celebrate the winner.  (Speaking of which, get ready for a baby boom, Argentina!)




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