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GUEST BLOG Darwinism & Football: Evolving the sport through fan intelligence

A guest blog by Sanjit Atwal (@SanjitAtwal), Co-Founder and CEO of Squawka.com (@Squawka_Sports).

"Folks, it's time to evolve. That's why we're troubled. You know why our institutions are failing us, the church, the state, everything's failing? It's because, um - they're no longer relevant. We're supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs. You do know that, right?" -Bill Hicks, Comedian

It's very doubtful that American comedian Bill Hicks was talking about football when he performed this sketch. A troubled soul, Hicks was famed for his incisive wit and anti-authoritarian attitude. One of his driving forces lay in his total belief that there was something inherently wrong with the way the world was run - that there was a better way.

The method of change Hicks concentrated on was evolution. Or, more specifically on natural selection (Charles Darwin's theory of a gradual process by which an organism develops from a simple state to a more complex being).  Yet, while Hicks didn't direct the comment toward football, I find myself feeling it is very apt in today's climate.

Football is a funny old game. The World's most popular sport has an estimated 3 billion fans and holds within its grasp some of the biggest brands on Earth. But within this goliath of our culture their lays extreme tribalism and a particular strain of creationism that, once viewed from a sufficiently objective vantage point, can boggle the mind.

In fact, stand back far enough and look at the sport in the right light and football is almost indiscernible from religion (you can't spell 'fanaticism' without 'fan'). And, true to religions own traits, sometimes the bright light of devotion can burn the eyes and temporarily lead judgement away from its usual path.

There are many examples to look at in which we have let our 'religion' hold back or sway our reasoning in progressing the sport. Two prominent examples are goal line technology and video referees. The journey we have all collectively taken on the way totriallinggoal line technology can only be described as arduous and the fact week after week we are allowing subjective decision making to dictate major outcomes is madness.

Seasoned football fans will recognise that the above talking points have been doing the rounds for many a year. For younger fans it's just the way it has always been.

The interesting thing is that we have long had the means to rid the sport of these talking points. That means is in technology and data. And not just these talking points, everything from the team selection to formation to tactics to substitutions can be derived from both historic and real time data.

Let me head off you naysayers (zealots, if you will) that are about to suggest that this level of data and technology detracts from the romanticism of the game. That is an absurd notion.  Are you seriously telling me that knowinglessabout something makes it better?

Let me give you an example. After sending out some stats summing up the recent Chelsea Vs QPR game, we received the following tweet:

"This what I hate about modern football! To much analysis!! The only thing that matters is Goals For vs Goals Against"

To understand football on purely 'goals' is to deny yourself the beauty of the sport itself. Yes, it's the most important metric. No, it's not the only metric. Stats and data do not take away the 'art' of football.

The argument of science Vs art has been raging for centuries. The poet John Keats once famously accused Sir Issac Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by trying to explain how all of the colours got their hues. Richard Dawkins in his book Unweaving the Rainbow writes extensively around the premise that scientific knowledge ofhowthe rainbow has come to be can couple with the aesthetics of poetry to produce something even more magical.

We have a saying in our office: "there is drama in the data". There are intricacies and nuances in every game, every team, every player and every pass. Each, when made accessible, can drive up your satisfaction for the game through past, current and future knowledge.

The key word here is 'accessible'. You are as you are because your elders have influenced you into being so. Fact. You know what you know about the science of football because your media consumption has influenced you so. Fact.

It's a strange scenario we find ourselves in. I lean towards calling it a walled garden but that's an incorrect analogy.

The data is there. You see it with your own eyes as you watch the game. The issue is you just haven't processed it (or been taught the meanings of the data you are absorbing). The gates to the walled garden are open but most fans are stopping briefly outside to buy a postcard of the flora and fauna.

However we are talking about evolution. And, just like the first fish that sprouted arms to crawl out of the sea to investigate the big dirt thingy that lay in the way, there are signs that the consumption of football is changing…

I refer you to sites such as the excellent ZonalMarking.net, which I guarantee you will feel smarter after reading. I point you towards a new public craving for analysis by way of Gary Neville's performances on Sky Sports. I urge you to read Why England Lose/Soccernomics  by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski.

The economy of fandom has begun to exchange in different currencies - those of data and visualisations. The genetics of the fan him/herself are slowly beginning to adapt to greater information and take (seek?) more meaning in football.

There is potential too to begin true crowd sourced analysis. Manchester City's now famous project to analyse Opta data was a success in that it generated great awareness of the data available. Whether or not there were tangible results from the project remain to be seen but the theory is sound and the ramifications for the mainstream media potentially huge.

It would be a grave commercial and cultural mistake not to recognise this shift but, thanks to businesses like Opta (who fuel our own real time football data site, Squawka.com) we as fans can find our way to the science behind the art and to an even more enriching relationship with the beautiful game. After all, it's all about genetics...

"What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of information technology. It is pure information. It's digital information. It's precisely the kind of information that can be translated digit for digit, byte for byte, into any other kind of information and then translated back again. This is a major revolution. I suppose it's probably "the" major revolution in the whole history of our understanding of ourselves. It's something would have boggled the mind of Darwin, and Darwin would have loved it, I'm absolutely sure." - Richard Dawkins

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Posted by Sanjit Atwal at 09:26