by Thomas Macaulay

Southampton FC IT Director Matthew Reynolds kicking tech into football

Jun 21, 2018
Data CenterIT StrategyMobile Apps

Southampton FC’s IT Director Matthew Reynolds normally provides the tech to support a team of Premier League footballers, but yesterday he had to assist a very different group of performers: The Rolling Stones took to the pitch for the latest leg of their European tour.

“From a technology point of view, we started planning this concert three months ago,” Reynolds tells CIO UK in a meeting room in the 32,505 capacity in St Mary’s stadium.

“We have to provide services to the fans, but also the production team, hospitality, food and beverage.”

The stage is now being torn down as the stadium is restored to its primary purpose before the new Premier League season kicks off in August.

Five of the Southampton stars are currently on World Cup duty while the rest of the squad are enjoying their holidays, but the IT team remains hard at work preparing for their return also for the new players the club intends to recruit.

“Southampton Football Club needs to develop players to generate revenues,” explains Reynolds. “From an IT point of view, when we purchase players we look at the total cost of ownership of that player and how much residual funding or profit we’ll have left of that player when we sell them.”

The way they maximise the value is increasingly through analytics.

Data on the pitch

Data analytics has been a fundamental part of many sports for decades, but football has been slower to embrace the scientific approach to recruitment and tactics. Purists have been reluctant to quantify the beautiful game, which is harder to numerically assess than more calculable sports such as baseball.

Early adopters of analytics failed to convince the cynics. In 2011, Liverpool’s then-director of football Damien Comolli was slated for a splashing out a combined £36m on Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing based on their “final third regain” percentages, a measure of how often they regain possession. Comolli’s signings couldn’t convert the analytics sceptics into believers, but their shortcomings didn’t end the experiments.

As the technology improved and the skills of analysts grew, the data began to show its potential. When Leicester City FC defied 5,000-to-1 odds to win the 2015-16 Premier League, one of the team’s unsung hero was analytics.

Leicester’s sparse squad had to constantly sprint to score more counter-attacking goals than any other team, which they managed to do while racking up the fewest injuries in the league.

They achieved this unlikely combination by monitoring everything, from the density of the pitch to the intensity of their movements, and then adapting training regimes to optimise fitness.

Southampton has yielded impressive results from data science. The analytics strategy helped the club develop Europe’s most profitable youth academy, while establishing itself as a Premier League mainstay.

“We look at individual players in other squads and other football leagues and we run a lot of algorithms against who they were playing at the time and against our benchmarks,” says Reynolds.

“If it’s an under nine that’s come through our system we have all this data that they’ve generated from GPS, medical records and physical performance in the gym. We take all that data and now with that wider ecosystem of weather, pitch softness and multiple other areas, we can correlate injury now on not just what they’ve done physically, but where they’ve done it.”

IT and the business

To maximise the value of the investment in analytics, Reynolds embeds IT across Southampton’s business.

Take scouting recruitment and sports medical,” he explains. “They would have a data scientist sitting in each of those functions, and we have a data analytics team in IT. However, one day a week our member of staff will be embedded into their department and likewise their data scientist one day a week comes and sits in our department.

“You end up getting this very creative and efficient way to develop insights. Some of the stuff they do is absolutely amazing. We use Python and R and we’re moving to machine learning for even better efficiencies. When you start surfacing data initially, you find things you never knew and a lot you need to clean up.

“We’ve found players we had scouted that used to be on a written piece of paper and then dropped off the radar because they weren’t the hot topic at the time. Now we’ve resurfaced them and they’re looking at those players again because it was so misdated and hidden in a spreadsheet somewhere.

“Now it’s more centralised. We can see who’s been looked at, who hasn’t been looked at for a little while, and whether we go back and look at those players. It is quite exciting really and it’s something that the states have been doing in American football with analytics for quite a while. Football now is just seeing this transformation of data and insights.”

Technology for the fans

Fan engagement is another area that could benefit from better use of data.

“Fans are screaming out for data,” says Reynolds. “I might be a great James Ward-Prowse and I would love to see that he could’ve run from, I don’t know, London to Southampton in a week. We need to start sharing that information, connecting the fan at the ground and also the fan that doesn’t come to the stadium. You’ve got just over 32,000 of them that come to the stadium. That’s pretty much a fixed cost – we can gain revenue off them and we can give them data back so their whole experience is better, but your fans globally also want to consume that data.”

For Reynolds to reach his goal of sharing real-time data real-time with fans, Southampton needs to upgrade its Wi-Fi infrastructure.

The improvements will also support the changing needs of the press.

“The Wi-Fi we put in six years ago was when most people probably carried one or two devices max,” says Reynolds.

“You’ve got press turning up with at least three now. Technology moves really quickly and you need to keep investing to keep it new.”

From Formula 1 to football

Southampton FC isn’t Reynolds first job in sports. Before entering football, he spent a decade working in Formula 1. It started with a stint as a support engineer at Arrows Grand Prix International. The team had a star driver in Jos Verstappen, but a budget so small that in one race they needed Reynolds to change a tyre.

Reynolds moved on from Arrows to winning races at Williams and then world championships at Renault, until the global recession forced the team to slash the IT budget. Reynolds decided to look for other work.

“I found Southampton football club,” he remembers. “There were two guys, almost everything was broken, email was down two hours a day, but the chairman at the time had that same killer instinct that we’d had at Renault: We’re going to win.”

The club had only just been promoted from League One to the Championship, but was already plotting a return to the Premier League.

Reynolds’ role in the rise was to prepare the tech for promotion.

He first had to rebuild the creaking IT infrastructure. His team replaced the network storage fabric in the stadium with a scalable system, installed Wi-Fi and then converged the whole network to bring together separate entities from TV to phone calls.

They then set to work on modernising the applications, including a retail system based on clunky calculator and cash stored in drawers. Once the foundations were laid, Reynolds moved on to developing a digital strategy and aligning IT with the business.

“I think the way for it to become that is to do small pieces of work that the board recognise and they can see the benefits,” says Reynolds. “What we’re doing around analytics is blowing them away and with that you build trust and then you get investments.”

The board will also soon benefit from the recent rollout of Workday as a replacement for legacy systems across payroll, procurement, finance and HR.

Staff can now book a holiday, write a purchase order, authorise payments or check their salary in the same tool, and Reynolds plans to add further capabilities to the system.

“The next phase of that is to start surfacing management information for the board,” he explains. “We’re integrating all our commercial systems in there from our revenue recognition and costs of goods sold, which will allow the board visibility in near real-time on match day, of what’s been sold where, so we can make better decisions.”

Rolling on to the next season

As the rollers on the pitch smoothen a surface that was danced on last night by the Rolling Stones and their fans, the thoughts of Reynolds can return to the football.

“My priorities for this year are the first team and really starting to get all the information that people are screaming out for available at their fingertips, wherever they are in the world.

“It’s a year of consolidation really. We will continue to grow our Workday practice here and get all these integrations in, the commercial activities and fan engagement.”

The club had a tough season last year and barely staved off relegation years but Reynolds is optimistic that next year will be better.

Top half would be great and playing in Europe again,” he says. “I think that’s where we initially hope to be. We aspire to be a Champions League club, but that first needs our business to stabilise and be consistently in that top half. I’ll go for a really impressive eight.”