International football in Asia booming, with record figures and media value being generated for the qualification stages for the upcoming men’s Asian Cup, as well as a 63% increase in viewers for last year’s women’s competition.
Underpinning this growth is the advances in new technologies, which is enabling confederations, football associations and clubs to enhance the way they engage with fans, increase visibility of their competitions and improve performance on the field.
To help ensure its various member associations have a better understanding of these technologies and the potential benefits of investing in them, the AFC hosted its first-ever Football Technology Conference last month, which was attended by 36 of its members.
Over the course of two days, they were given insights into how technology can support officiating of matches, talent identification and recruitment, sponsorship activation, marketing of competitions, delivery of new in-game digital fan experiences and much more.
The opportunities open to associations in Asia, facilitated by technology, were perhaps best summarised during the event’s introduction by AFC Deputy General Secretary – Competitions and Football, Shin Man Gil.
After listening to different presentations and talks, as well as discussions with many delegates, it’s clear that there are a range of different short-term and long-term objectives, and challenges, across each member association, who have different infrastructures, talent pools and fan bases. However there were a number of key points which I think are relevant across the region as a whole.
Here are my five main takeaways:
Technology Investment Has Potential For Significant Returns, But Implementation Is Key
From the outset, the conference highlighted four key pillars which are all underpinned by data and technology: fan engagement, team performance, analysis and referee technology.
Whilst investment in these resources can accelerate growth and generate revenue, it is important to recognise that each football association across the region are at a different stage in their technology journey – and in many instances, staff working in different departments may not always be familiar with the resources available, or the best practice in using them most effectively.
This reinforced to me the importance of proper training and implementation of key services from the outset. For example at Stats Perform, I operate as part of a global Pro Solutions team, whose responsibility it is to ensure coaches and analysts working on the performance side at teams have a complete understanding of our technologies at their disposal – and how these can both complement and enhance daily tasks in their working cycle.
Ultimately technology informs decisions, but in a performance setting it is important to remember that decision-making is still the propriety of a coach, or sport director, so it is vitally important that their staff can utilise technology to its full potential to help make better decisions which long-term, is going to provide greater ROI. The last thing you want is to under-utilise a potentially game-changing resource.
Innovative Fan Engagement Can Enhance a Federation’s Global Profile
Another point reinforced at the conference was the evolution of the football audience in Asia. According to the AFC’s own research, fans in the region are now better informed about football than ever before – and understanding the expectations of these fans is crucial when it comes to content.
One of the best examples of innovative engagement, targeting at this demographic, showcased at the conference was the Thailand FA’s use of Facebook. After each matchday, they use the platform to explain notable referee decisions from the matches played, using the IFAB’s laws as their reference point. Similar initiatives have now been introduced by leading European leagues, such as the new Mic’d Up programme now being broadcast in England.
The Thai FA are also one of several leagues who are embedding data insights and data visualisations into its social media content, to drive digital storytelling and new narratives for their domestic top-flight league, including player facts and performance tendencies.
These fan engagement tactics are a great example of how data-powered editorial can be used to increase the profile of a league in the region, as well as offer avenues for brand exposure of commercial partners. In a competitive space, greater visibility is a hugely valuable commodity to help a league grow.
Europe Is Watching – Data Can Help Your Clubs Market Their Emerging Talent
The pathway for players across Asian competitions into Europe has evolved, with many teams in the region now part of multi-club ownership models. These groups are equipped with their own global recruitment operations, who are scouring the region for the best emerging talent.
However other teams are also reaping the benefit of monitoring talent from the region, with players including Kaoru Mitouma having a significant on-field impact in Europe, after initially being signed by Brighton two years ago directly from J1 League side Kawasaki Frontale.
This summer also saw several young players from the Australian A-League men move to European clubs, including Jordan Bos who moved to Westerlo in Belgium for a league record fee.
Across modern football, data analysis forms a key component for informing a club’s recruitment decision-making. This means that if they haven’t done so already, leagues in Asia can enhance the visibility of their on-field assets through league-wide data from their competition being available to European clubs. If so, recruitment analysts can then analyse the performance of every player in a league against their own recruitment KPIs and the overall strength of the competition as a whole.
In An Ever-Changing Sporting Landscape, Agility is Key
As well as changes in the technology landscape, football as a sport is also subject to changes in rules and regulations each year. Changes in rules around offside and handball are two notable ones, whilst VAR and VAR Light is changing the way in-game refereeing decisions happen.
These changes can also impact other areas of the game – and for national associations in Asia looking to invest in new technologies for the first time, they need to be confident that solutions are agile to change and be future proofed to be sustainable in the long-term.
For example, changes in the way stoppage time was allocated at last year’s FIFA men’s World Cup have also been adopted by a number of domestic leagues around the world. How can providers help leagues implement this concept fairly across all games? Our solution at Stats Perform has been to introduce a ball-in-play feed as part of in-game Opta services, which accurately captures the amount of time the ball is active.
As well as the obvious officiating benefits, this data also offers more new angles for storytelling. This is further evidence of how data and technology can boost multiple pillars in an association’s ecosystem at once – in this case referee technology and fan engagement.
If Used Right, AI and Technology Can Enhance the Game
Across the 36 AFC Associations who attended, many highlighted limited financial resources which can impact tech investment. However, at the same time the point was made that data and technology has the potential to level the playing field for the wider benefit of football across the AFC.
One such example at the conference highlighted how live data, via tablet-compatible devices, is now made available to all teams in the AFC’s men’s and women’s youth tournaments, helping every coach and analyst be better informed when preparing for games and making in-game decisions.
Other technologies, such as goal-line technology, is helping to ensure mistakes are eliminated which can have a big impact on the result of a game.
Innovation in data collection processes is also enabling deeper player data to be collected at scale, without the need of expensive hardware, which looking ahead means that smaller associations can potentially use physical and tactical data to support the technical and tactical development of young players, to improve on-field decision making and their execution of key skills.
Finally, whilst it was stressed that the football industry in Asia is at a different stage in its own technology journey, compared to Europe and North America, various federations recognised that AI is going to offer a wide range of benefits across performance, media and fan engagement, over the next decade.
Predictive data, powered by AI models trained on match data, is already providing new ways to communicate performance insights to coaches and fans – notably during the current rugby World Cup, and when applied to football in Asia this is only going to further accelerate the growth and the profile of domestic and confederation competitions across the region.