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U.S. Soccer Turns to Hackathon to Accelerate the Growth of Analytics

The Federation hosted a hackathon with the hopes of relying on top minds from across the country to help them solve data-related problems.

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While sports like baseball and basketball have long understood the value of using data to move the game forward, others, like soccer, have been slower to catch up. Realizing this, the U.S. Soccer Federation had long toyed with how to best collect and leverage data to improve soccer performance. Just over two months ago, the federation decided to act on an idea it had for a while — by hosting a hackathon.

“There seemed to be too many benefits to ignore [it] any longer,” explained Ross Moses, the director of analytics and research for U.S. Soccer.

With roughly 60 days to plan, U.S. Soccer pulled together a weekend program and gathered hackers and data scientists from across the country for 24 hours of hacking geared at improving player performance. Timed to the World Cup final, the federation and hackers celebrated their hard work by watching the championship match.

Despite the short notice, U.S. Soccer saw a strong response. The 210 registration spots filled up quickly and as the date approached, the federation needed to turn people away as it reached capacity in its partner 1871’s facility space.

About half of the attendees came from universities and the federation plugged into data science programs from schools like Harvard, UCLA, and the University of Chicago.

“There’s a data science consortium here in Chicago that is just specializing in hackathons,” explained Moses, “So there’s this whole community that already exists and it was just a matter of getting the right contacts and getting the word out that way. It’s just all organic with email lists and organic social and word of mouth and it worked.”

U.S. Soccer spread the word by reaching out to contacts at technology companies, universities, and doing organic outreach through email lists, social campaigns, and straight word of mouth.

When imagining what was possible when it came to data collection, U.S. Soccer looked at what other sports were doing in the analytics space.

“There is so much data, but analytics, as a space, is so young, especially in sports. And then when you talk about analytics and soccer, it’s even younger,” Moses said.

Major League Baseball is the obvious leader in the sports analytics space, followed by basketball. Both sports have understood before many others the value of data and have leveraged it to propel the sport forward.

U.S. Soccer has a relationship with Major League Baseball and has taken to heart its feedback on the federation’s data infrastructure, not just on the commercial side, but on the sporting side as well.

Still, soccer presents a different set of analytical challenges than other sports.

“At a certain point, it’s 22 players on the field running around in organized chaos and there’s not a lot of scoring, so you’ve got to think of different ways to measure things. It takes time and it takes more than one organization and more than a couple of minds. It takes an army,” Moses said, explaining the unique challenges soccer faces compares to baseball or basketball.

“The biggest barrier is that producing the data costs time and money and there are big companies that specialize exclusively on doing this with Opta being arguably the biggest.”

It takes a lot of trust and planning for Opta, which supported U.S. Soccer for the hackathon, to take the data they have and share it with a large number of strangers for an event like this.

Collaborating with both Opta and 1871, one of the leading incubators, U.S. Soccer was able to share data from not just from the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, but from organizations like Major League Soccer to broaden the depth and scope of data that could be mined.

U.S. Soccer acknowledges the current state of analytics in soccer and is committed to being an innovator in the space. Hosting the hackathon, which was the first soccer-specific hackathon held on U.S. soil and, one of the firsts held by a federation, demonstrates that. Some club teams, like FC Bayern Munich who hosted its inaugural hackathon earlier this year, are on a similar wavelength and have already started making progress in the space.

Despite being further behind other sports such as baseball and basketball, U.S. Soccer isn’t concerned.

“U.S. Soccer is one of the more forward-thinking organizations,” Moses said. “So [data] is a big pillar of what we do on a day to day basis. Our analytics department is very powerful and we’re growing quickly.”

Moses stressed how the goal of the hackathon was to accelerate the growth of soccer analytics. As U.S. Soccer looks to host similar events in the future, and with hopes to make the hackathon annual, that looks to be possible.

Lucy is a contributing writer for Front Office Sports. A storyteller and brand strategist, she has worked in the sports industry for organizations including the United States Olympic Committee, IMG/WME and the Miami Open, the University of Miami Athletic Department, Florida Panthers, and Minnesota Twins. She spent 2016 living in Colombia where she accomplished a life-long goal of becoming fluent in Spanish while working for the Ministerio de Educación Nacional. Lucy is a graduate of the University of Miami. She can be reached at lucy@frntofficesport.com.

Innovation

Mesh Seats Help Showcase Innovation at New Las Vegas Ballpark

The Las Vegas Ballpark is set to open this year with brand new mesh seats that promise to keep fans cool and comfortable in the Las Vegas sun.

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Photo via Las Vegas Ballpark

When Las Vegas Ballpark opens on April 9, more than three decades of stadium advancements will be on display.

The old stadium, Cashman Field, opened in 1983 and was already out of date by 1993, said Don Logan, president and COO of the Las Vegas Aviators, the recently rebranded moniker of the AAA team. The team also signed a development agreement this fall with the Oakland Athletics, after its agreement with the New York Mets expired.

Despite stadiums quickly surpassing Cashman, it took another 25 years to break ground on a new venue.

“Cashman, I hate to bash it, but it just outgrew its usefulness,” Logan said. “The world changed and it didn’t.”

Enter the Howard Hughes Corporation, a major land developer in Las Vegas — specifically behind the Summerlin neighborhood. The company purchased the Las Vegas 51s in 2013. With more than 400 acres at its disposal for Downtown Summerlin — about half of which is developed — a space was reserved for the Las Vegas Ballpark, an approximately $150 million project right next door to the corporate headquarters and practice facility of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.

READ MORE: Minor League Baseball Showcasing Deeper Partnership Connections With Hot Dogs

The two sports facilities are at the center of a master-planned community meant to provide an idealistic “live, work, play” environment in Las Vegas. More than 4,000 urban residential units can be built around the stadium in the near future.

“Even in 2011, I’m not sure we’d see iconic sports facilities in downtown Summerlin,” said Tom Warden, Howard Hughes Corporation senior vice president of community and government relations. “It’s a lot of opportunities for the team and also for Summerlin; we view this as an amenity for the Summerlin community.”

The new stadium has greatly improved amenities in all aspects, largely focused on player development and fan amenities, with a capacity for 10,000.

The centerpiece might be the video board, which Logan said is in the top 25-largest in all of organized baseball with 3,930 square feet of digital space. On off nights, movies might be played on screen for community residents.

A big consideration behind much of the Las Vegas Ballpark design was the high heat of Southern Nevada summers. The seats in the stadium are mesh, which greatly reduces the heat on spectator backsides. Logan said when a summer day reaches 110 degrees, plastic and metal seats can reach near 200 degrees. The mesh seats maintain temperatures below 100 degrees.

Likewise, there are giant fans from the company Big Ass Fans circulating air throughout the concourse. Fans can navigate the stadium 360 degrees with various destinations throughout to keep fans occupied and in the stadium, Logan said.

In the outfield, a swimming pool will look out at the field. A kids splash pad is also found in the stadium.

“This is all a tribute to the Hughes Corporation being willing to spend money where it matters and improve the experience,” Logan said. “We want to make people more comfortable and want to come back more often.”

The suite level will have two end caps with walkout party decks with capacity for 350 people.

Logan also said the food and beverage program will be much more aligned to modern minor league baseball than Cashman was and more indicative of the Summerlin community. They’ve even built in a show kitchen to bring in celebrity chefs to cook for fans.

“What other Triple-A team has the ability to do that?” Warden asked.

For players, they too get a respite from the baseball season heat. Cashman Field had no indoor batting cages, weight training or rehabilitation center. The facilities were regularly regarded among the bottom of organized baseball.

READ MORE: The Minor League Baseball of the Future

Now, there’s three indoor batting cages under the right-field stands, as well as greatly improved player facilities for better development.

The organization is already in talks with college conferences to host tournaments, and it plans on hosting more MLB exhibitions than the one or two a season at Cashman. The Aviators’ former stadium is still home to the Las Vegas Lights, the city’s United Soccer League team.

Las Vegas Ballpark is one of two Minor League Baseball stadiums opening next season, along with Advanced Class-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers.

“We’ll be the belle of the ball,” Logan said. “The good thing is we had 35 years to learn from and improve on, and we’re benefiting from all of it.”

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Innovation

Gratitude Helps Chelsea FC Unlock Winning Engagement Strategy

Over the holiday season, Chelsea FC launched #CFCFansgiving, a social campaign designed to honor its most loyal American fans.

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Photo via Chelsea FC

The holiday season has come and gone; so have the social posts from brands honoring the several weeks of heightened spirits.

Amidst the traditional holiday posts from different brands, however, was a full-fledged social campaign from an English club that started by celebrating a very non-English holiday. In November, Chelsea FC launched a multi-week campaign to celebrate Thanksgiving — a holiday that, at a glance, wouldn’t be a brand fit for the London-based club — and the rest of the holiday season. 

The soccer world is still buzzing about it weeks later. The campaign, branded #CFCFansgiving, was designed for Chelsea’s American fan base and executed on @ChelseaFCinUSA, the club’s new U.S.-specific handle that launched earlier this year.

During the week of Thanksgiving, Chelsea showed appreciation to its U.S. family by deploying over 200 random acts of kindness to fans across the States. Recipients of these surprise-and-delight moments were chosen either through nominations by fellow U.S. fans or based on their use of The 5th Stand — Chelsea’s mobile app and the chelseafc.com website.

READ MORE: Super Soccer Stars Grows Its Presence in the Health and Wellness Space

Surprises coming out of the campaign included a father and son duo from Los Angeles receiving a trip to London to watch Chelsea play live; recognition of two youth soccer leaders from the D.C. area; and a donation to fight ALS in honor of a fan suffering from the disease.

Many more fans were sent #CFCFansgiving gift boxes that included autographed memorabilia, an authentic ‘18-19 home jersey, or a “your next drink on us” package that included two pint glasses and gift cards.

While the campaign was primarily executed during Thanksgiving, surprises from #CFCFansgiving lasted well into December when the club visited New York City for NBC’s Premier League Mornings Live event.

To wrap up the campaign, Chelsea surprised three members of New York Blues, a Chelsea supporters club, with a VIP experience at Barclays Center ahead of a Brooklyn Nets match. The club also treated them to dinner with former club player Eidur Gudjohnsen, and surprised them with a personalized message and autographed jersey from current star Eden Hazard.

“#CFCFansgiving was an incredible event, from the packages being sent out across the country, to the fan experiences with Eidur Gudjohnsen in New York. For American fans, Fansgiving not only made us feel part of the club, it made us feel valued as a fan base,” said New York winner Anshuman Bhatia.

Now looking ahead for new campaign ideas to execute in 2019, the club is set to ramp up its efforts in North America — and the strategy to engage with their loyal fans there is a smart one.

Many followers of the @ChelseaFCinUSA account have been fans of the club for years, supporting the team from overseas without there being any strong American ties.  The benefit of the new Twitter account is that it provides a home for these fans and content that is more tailored to their interests and culture than the main @ChelseaFC handle.

Some have questioned the need for U.S.-specific accounts for Premier League teams, given that the main club accounts are managed in English.

#CFCFansgiving is a prime example of the value that an account like @ChelseaFCinUSA can have.

READ MORE: Sacramento Republic FC Makes a Child’s Dream Come True

The content is tailored to the American audience whose holidays and interests often differ from those of Chelsea’s UK-based fans, making an activation like this successful in a way it wouldn’t be on the main handle. The fan community in the U.S. is also different in that they wake up early to watch matches being played thousands of miles away. The content generated by these accounts can play into those norms and bring together this community in a way that the main club account cannot.

Bhatia, like many others, hopes this is just the start of the club’s American fan interactions.

“It was a great experience, and I hope it’s the start of a growing connection between the club and their worldwide fan base,” said Bhatia.

#CFCFansgiving was a way for the club to honor the fans who loyally wake up to watch their club — no matter the time — and celebrate, for the first time, what it means to be a Chelsea fan in the United States.

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Innovation

Double Amputee and Paralympian Driver Finds Unique Way to Overcome Obstacles

Alex Zanardi designed hand controls to be able to continue racing and will pilot a BMW for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the upcoming race.

Kraig Doremus

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Photo via BMW

Go back to 2001 and take a look at who members of the motorsports community thought were the best drivers in the world.

Chances are, CART — now known as INDYCAR — driver Alex Zanardi was at the top of the list.

Tragically, Zanardi lost both of his legs in a racing accident then, but he’ll compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the first time on January 26-27.

The date was September 15, 2001, and Zanardi was competing at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany. A violent crash resulted in having both of his legs amputated. Following the crash, Zanardi worked to recover and not only continued racing, but took up hand cycling. In the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, he won a combined six medals – four gold medals and two silver medals.

WATCH: Inside Toyota’s Massive Daytona Activation

Zanardi also continued racing. With a no-quit attitude and a strong backing from BMW, he has been able to race with the assistance of specially modified prosthesis. The kicker? Zanardi designed and built the hand controls himself. Between 2005 and 2009 he won four World Touring Car Championships and is ready to make his first start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“It’s difficult to explain by emotions leading up to the Rolex 24 at Daytona,” Zanardi said. “It’s exciting to be driving a BMW race car. I’m here, and it’s extremely special. It’s a unique opportunity that I have to compete in Daytona and to see so many old friends too.”

Zanardi, who will turn 53 this year, knows just how complicated the cars are and that he faces an even tougher challenge having to use hand controls to pilot his race car.

“These cars are complicated with all the electronics inside them, and all I have to work with is my hands,” Zanardi said with a laugh. “Our lives as drivers are more complicated because we have so many instruments to try to deliver the best performance. I’m used to just a few switches. Now, I have more to deal with and my hands are all I can use to drive the car and shift, etcetera. I hope I can be a fast learner and support my team with a sufficient performance to not let them down.”

Zanardi, who began testing the BMW M8 GTE that he’ll pilot for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in December, is able to change gears with the simple touch of a button. On the steering wheel, he moves through the different gears. His right hand breaks and downshifts.

READ MORE: How NASCAR Stays Up to Speed in the Ever-Changing Digital Space

The race checks off a bucket-list item for Zanardi and although it is currently a one-off, he doesn’t guarantee that it will be last race of his career.

“This race is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I can’t say for sure that it’ll be the last race of my career. In 2009, I really started focusing on cycling, and now racing is just something I still do on the side. I don’t think I’d have sufficient energy to compete at the level that it takes to compete for an entire championship, but an event like the Rolex 24 at Daytona is fascinating to me.”

Will we see the inspirational driver back in a race car in 2019, or will he officially hang up the helmet following the 57th Rolex 24 at Daytona? He uses an interesting analogy – one involving a cat and mouse – to explain his feelings.

“If you ask me if I want to drive a car, it’s like asking a cat if he likes the mouse,” said Zanardi. “The answer is yes. We’ll see what happens down the road. BMW offered me a great opportunity, and we’re taking things one step at a time and just focusing on this event.”

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