Tech becomes Blackburn Rovers' 12th man
Blackburn Rovers’ recent history reads more like a soap opera script than a football club.
The club established in 1875 became a founding member of the football league in 1888 and famously won the Premiership League in 1994–95 under the ownership of owner Jack Walker.
Everyone had a soft spot for Rovers – except the fans of fierce local rivals Burnley.
Then, in 2010, the Indian poultry giant Venky's bought the club and relegation to the third tier of English football followed. Attendances dropped as public protests increased and the proud East Lancashire club appeared to be in disarray.
Thankfully a degree of stability has returned to Ewood Park. Pockets of opposition to the Venky’s still exist but the club sit midtable in the Championship and dream of a return to the Premier League. Attendances are hovering around 14,000; turnover is set to grow to £17m; manager Tony Mowbray has just celebrated two years in charge; and CEO Steve Waggott has proved a calming influence off the pitch.
However during my recent visit to Ewood Park, what struck me was Blackburn Rovers’ commitment to technology, which permeates into every area of the business.
The ambitious outfit has invested heavily in technology to improve player recruitment and performance, fan engagement and the matchday experience.
Nothing is left to chance in a game where promotion to the Premier League could be worth £130m and where players are bought and sold for mouth-watering sums of money.
GPS tracking of players; goal-line technology; video assistant referees (VAR); sports science; Prozone to analyse performance; football statistics from Opta; social media in all its guises; fan engagement; virtual reality; mobile phone ticket entry; cashless concourses; streaming; and public WiFi are just some of the terms that have entered the footballing vernacular.
Steve Waggott is old enough to remember football in the pre-technology. Appointed in December 2018 he has overseen the adoption of technology across all aspects of club.
Waggott recalls football before the influences of technology took hold.
“Everything was manual - from putting the scores up at half time, which I still love by the way,” he recalls with a more than a hint of nostalgia.
“Way back when they would talk about the ‘magic sponge’ when a player got injured. Who would have thought that people would be wearing a GPS system on their body to track how they run, the intensity of the run, the kilometres they cover – both on training and match day?
“You get all the stats and you study the stats of the opponents. It’s gone into a completely different scientific level.”
Originally from Newcastle Waggott speaks with a strong North East accent despite the fact he splits his time between his family home in Kent and his Lancashire base.
A talented footballer as a kid he went into the administration side and has held a number of senior executive positions within football over the last 14 years, including at Southend United, Gillingham, Coventry City and Charlton Athletic.
In the frenetic world of football Waggott speaks of the need to ‘decompress’, which he does through swimming or walking the family dog.
“We’re in a crazy world that’s adrenaline-fueled and it’s 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and the phone never switches off,” he told me. “ It’s just the nature of the industry we’re working in.”
Waggott doesn’t shy away from Blackburn’s recent ‘turbulent’ times following the arrival of the Venky’s.
“I think for various reasons there was a revolving door of executives and management teams which creates an instability and uncertainty about the direction of travel for an organisation,” he said
“And then I think there was a decision by the owners that they wanted some strong leadership at the helm of the company with two or three KPIs – one was bring stability to the business both on and off the field, two is communications (fan engagement being a big one) and three is clearly articulating where we’re going as a football club in terms of reconnecting with the community.”
All of which is underpinned by technology, starting with the club’s biggest asset – the players.
In an industry of marginal gains, clubs started to map the performance levels of players, looking to technology for a scientific explanation on why an individual performed or didn’t perform in a particular match.
“It’s right across the board now in terms of player performance, data on opponents, and recruitment of players,” said Waggott.
“We’ve got a head of recruitment along with a big team of assistants and scouts, all supported by technology and analysts. We’ve also got other performance analysis.”
It wouldn’t be unheard of for a data analyst to use technology to spot a trend in the first half to explain an underperformance issue and share it with the manager at half-time in the dressing room to rectify it in the second period.
“We’ve got a whole sports science medical team,” said the CEO. “We’re building up to hopefully having a platform ready for the Premier League, where all the preventative work has to go in. However, should they sustain an injury, we’ve then got a top class team who can get them put back together as quickly as possible.”
Clubs live and die by the players they recruit and technology has come to the fore. Traditionally clubs were dependent on a scouting network to identify the next superstar but now they supplement that with a high-tech database of players and games from all the major leagues to match the right type of player to the right club.
For example Rovers snapped Joe Rothwell from League One club Oxford United and Ben Brereton from fellow Championship club Nottingham Forest after they ticked the boxes in terms of what Rovers were looking for.
Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany has recently invested in football virtual reality training platform Rezzil, which aims to develop players' mental resilience, decision-making and match-readiness.
VR technology is not something Rovers have got involved in yet and although embracing tech, Waggott does have some concerns about where it’s going.
“The biggest challenge for football, in my opinion, is people coming to live games because all the digital technology – which is great and very positive most of the time – could actually kill the game as a spectator viewing sport,” he said.
Currently 25 per cent of Blackburn's revenue comes from attendance income but in the Premier League it's closer to 8 per cent, meaning the biggest clubs aren't as dependent on the income from fans on match day.
“The challenge is does it just eventually eat the game if you can watch the goal playback in five or 10 seconds (through technology)?" asked Waggott.
“Everything's instant now, there's nothing deferred in life, it's how you make sure you don't kill the game off.”
However Waggott is nothing if not a realist and accepts the benefits of technology far outweigh the negatives.
“We’re trying to bring the club into the 21st century in terms of technology around making it as easy as possible to access a ticket and our retail products,” he explained.
“In our game with Sheffield Wednesday we worked with a Lancashire company called Bleep to make us completely contactless throughout all the concourses. Everywhere you buy anything, any purchasing, it’s all contactless.”
One of the biggest changes in football during Waggott’s time in football has been the explosion in social media.
He doesn’t read fans’ board himself and although social media is an opportunity to engage with fans it can also be weaponised by disgruntled fans.
“Everybody is trying to make players more media savvy,” admitted Waggott. “How they present themselves in interviews and on social media in terms of how many followers they’ve got, what they say, very much in the spotlight every minute of the day so there’s very much an educational curve there.
“Think before you tweet is the number one (piece of advice). Journalists make the most out of the emotion. You can’t be overreacting to different things at certain times. You have to accept in football that people who don’t even know you will have an opinion.”
Technology is critical to Blackburn Rovers to engage with its hard core support of 13,000 supporters and target new audiences.
The club’s official interactive app has been downloaded 10,000 times and keeps social media in one place.
“We’re trying to bring the club into the 21st century in terms of technology around making it as easy as possible to access a ticket and our retail products.”
Rovers’ business development manager Danny Davis is leading the implementation of smart cards at the ground, which will be linked to a fan’s bank account and allow supporters to make purchases through their season tickets.
“For us what that’s going to give us understanding of where fans are spending – it’s to make sure we have the right things in the grounds when they come in,” he said.
Davis is a big fan of the NFL in America, which has led the way in the adoption of tech to engage with fans and he hopes football can follow suit.