Most of us will have seen the movie Moneyball, with Brad Pitt? Based on a true story, a baseball team in the US picking and signing players purely based on specific qualities, which together would form a winning team. The club would sign a miss match of cheap or even unknown players, causing frowns in foreheads of other managers, thinking: what are they smoking? But it worked. For a spell. We do need to add that the club actually never won the World Series, so it’s not like it’s a guaranteed recipe for success, but they did get attention.
A Dutch company seems to step into the shoes of Messrs Pitt and co. to revolutionise the way we look at new players and valuable players. In these past week, clubs, managers, scouts, players were busy trying to sort deals in the winter transfer window. Busy times for Giels Brouwer as well. Who? Giels Brouwer: the founder of SciSports, a Dutch company keen to make the difference: “I believe it with all my heart: math will be the foundation of football!”.
So what do they do?
SciSports uses date to generate new insights into football. They have developed three products:
1. BallJames; allowing them to use real-time images into 3D data
2. SciSports Intelligence; develops algorythms to make this data visual
3. DataScouting is a virtual football consultant and talent scout
SciSports is located in Enschede (East of The Netherlands, where FC Twente is) and employs 45 people. Their database has stats of 300,000 players, up to the 2nd division.
He himself runs on Saturday afternoons along the sideline as left winger of Terschuurse Boys 4. “I can’t play, really”, the 27 year old says, when he joins Marcel Brands of PSV, or the Arsenal management or the technical committee of the Belgium football federation. Or when he travels to Silicon Valley on the invite of the European Union.
His company SciSports is seen as a potential unicorn. A company potentially worth billions in the future. “It’s so surreal. On Saturday arvo, my coach benches me because I’m not good enough, the next day I’m in San Francisco with a self driving car next to me at the traffic lights, or I’m presenting my products before the board of Man United.
Brouwer (left) with co-founder Babic
So please explain: Justin Kluivert is hot now. What do you know about him that I don’t?
“That’s too hard. He hasn’t played a handful of starting games. We need 15 to 20 games to make a good indication of a players’ potential. We don’t have a partnership with Ajax, so we don’t have his data from the youth academy. With PSV, we are at that point. Based on the youth data of PSV, I can tell you here and now that Kenneth Paal will be a top player for us.”
,,Haha. In our reporting, it appears that teams play better and get better results with him. He’s in our National Team of the Future. We help clubs identify players. A club can ask us: “We want a type of player like Memphis!”. Then we try to find players like Depay who are affordable. We have a database of 300,000 players and we can determine the impact of a player on a team. Not unlike Moneyball. Trying to find the new Kante or Vardy.”
SciSports offer more than data. “Clubs can also ask about negative aspects of a player. Was he drinking and driving? Has ie been suspended by his club? Did he injure a team mate. We have all these data. But it’s only a part of our service. Our core focus is the performance and statistics.”
In 2007, Brouwer commenced his studies at the Technical University in Enschede. Joop Munsterman, CEO of FC Twente opened his eyes during a guest lecture. “He told us about Twente’s technical management and how they did their transfer decision making. I was flabberhasted! I was a big player of Football Manager and I thought this was how it went in the real world. But Munsterman said it was all intuition! There are so many ways to scout a player, but FC Twente was doing it all in 1920 style. So I thought, I’ll build a Football Manager system, for the real world.”
In 2012, it all started for real. “I was in Ukraine for the Euros and I got a text message from a Twente scout. “Do you know a good player for us?”. And I thought, fuck it, I’m going to do this!”
Last year, SciSports assisted with 13 transfers, for Sparta, Vitesse, Twente, Heracles and Genk. At Heracles, they’ve installed 14 3D cameras which collate data for SciSports. “It’s all so basic still, but we’re moving fast. I hired 3 more people last month.”
What was the first big name player you found?
“Wout Weghorst. He was told FC Emmen didn’t want him anymore. But based on our data, he was excellent. Always scoring important goals, always on the right spot. The rest is history. SciSports brought him to Heracles and now he’s the new striker of AZ and no one misses Vincent Janssen. AZ is not his final station, I can alert you to that now.”
So the Dutch Eredivisie has a lot of potential still?
“Without any data to support this statement: Kasper Dolberg. But if you check the data results, Joey Groenbast of Go Ahead Eagles, the right back. And El Azzouzi of Sparta has potential. But the most influential player in the Eredivisie is Joel Veltman.”
“You wouldn’t think that, but yes, based on his stats. I would not have expected that either. But when he plays, Ajax doesn’t concede a lot and he’s always involved with the build up leading to goals. Our main question is always: what is the impact of a player on the team. That is key. Data will never replace the usual football processes of course, it doesn’t say anything about group dynamics. But it helps with generating insight to improve the game. It supports the coach. We help clubs by taking the noise out of the stats. It’s also confirming the ideas of scouts or giving them the devil’s advocate angle. I do believe that math can be the foundation of success in sports. It’s not perfect, but it’s less imperfect that the eye of the individual.”
Any tips for clubs?
“If any club is looking for a winger, I’d go watch SV Eupen in Belgium and sign Henry Onyekuru. A top player!”
SciSports is going like a rocket. But only a couple of years ago, it looked bleak. Two co-founders decided to leave the company and go for a job while Giel realised his savings account was as good as empty. In 2015, the turnaround came when Rapid Wien came and needed help finding a player. That made the penny drop. “We were focusing on the Dutch market but now realised we could easily expand internationally.”
Today, SciSports works for 50 clubs, from Heracles to Valencia, from Besiktas to Lazio Roma. SciSports offers monthly subscription for data reports and analyses to more than a dozen clubs, and counting.
“The Big Clubs such as Man City have their own data teams. They don’t need us per se, but lots of clubs can’t afford that so they are our target market.”
The Dutch National Team of Tomorrow (according to SciSports)
Then there is the captain of Heracles, Mark Jan Fledderus. He visits SciSports regularly to analyse the qualities of his direct opponent of the up coming match. The BallJames service focuses on details. Like the first touch of a player, or the power of the player’s headers, or the running patterns of teams… Ball James is still an infant, and a loss making activity. “But that will change, I’m sure. The potential is amazing and we are getting so many requests. all football clubs I talk to want it.”
Brouwer is now a player in the world of football. He has lunch with Bryan Roy, has weekly phone calls with Mark Overmars, receives signed jersey from Robin van Persie and rubs shoulders with Silicon Valley based investors.
“I didn’t start this to become a millionaire. It’s nice if it happens, but my aim was and is to make the football sports more beautiful….”