A man sitting in front of me at a DC United game last year kept complaining about Wayne Rooney. "He isn't hustling," he said. "He's not making any runs," he said. "He doesn't track back," he said, finally looking back at me.
I shook my head. "I don't know," I said. "I think his work rate is pretty high."
Was he right? Was I right? Hard to say. Our impressions were based on opinion: Of what we saw and, more generally, of Rooney himself.
But that's about to change.
Major League Soccer (MLS) and Second Spectrum just announced a multi-year agreement; as the league's first Official Advanced Tracking Data Provider, Second Spectrum will deploy its proprietary optical tracking system for every MLS match. (Second Spectrum was launched in 2013 by Jeff Su, Yu-Han Chang, and Rajiv Maheswaran, and already has multi-year deals in place with the NBA and the English Premier League.)
For MLS, the partnership works on multiple levels. Teams get access to software, data, and video tools that will help coaches, technical directors, scouts, and players better analyze and evaluate performance. (Think "Moneyball," but with 10 cameras in each stadium that capture player locations 25 times per second and use machine learning and AI to glean insights from that torrent of data.)
The same technology will create a new experience for fans, especially on digital and broadcast platforms, which aligns perfectly with the MLS audience. Soccer is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. among Millenials and Gen Z; a Gallup poll shows soccer ranks second in popularity only to football in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
"Our fans are the most tech-savvy, the most likely to adopt new forms of digital technology... in short, are constantly looking for additional ways to engage," says Chris Schlosser, MLS SVP of Media. "The more power we can put in the hands of our fans, the better."
The partnership also further validates the Second Spectrum founders' original thesis.
"Our company is basically built on the idea that tracking data can be transformative in a sport," Rajiv says. "We've spent the last years building technology that helps teams, leagues, and media partners move into the future. We're excited to have partners who have that kind of vision.
"In the case of MLS, we're launching almost every suite of products simultaneously. It's almost like they were interested in adopting our technology a little more quickly than we were ready for," Rajiv says, laughing.
Possibly on the hardware side, since deploying the technology required setting up cameras, cabling, etc. in every MLS stadium. But as ever tech entrepreneur knows, automation scales -- and where soccer is concerned, Second Spectrum has a successful launch with the English Premier League under its belt.
Relative ease of scaling also positions Second Spectrum well for further growth. Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, the list goes on: Soccer is the world's most popular spectator sport, and by a wide margin has more -- and more successful -- professional leagues and media rights partners.
"At the end of the day, you have to show value," Rajiv says. "Unfortunately, a lot of data doesn't show enough value. Analytics are powerful, but there are lots of other way that data can be used to change an ecosystem: How you view video, how you search for it, how you augment it, the stories it lets you tell... data can go well beyond analytics. Our priority is to ensure data makes things more accessible, not less."
Chris agrees. "Seeing how many high-speed runs a player has made," he says, "seeing a team's defensive shape, seeing shot probabilities, having all the advanced new metrics at your fingertips... not only do fans get new tools, but our broadcast partners can use the technology to do an even better job of telling the stories within the game. Their production teams are extremely excited to use it, and even this weekend you'll see it start to come alive in our broadcasts."
And maybe soon after that, if I find myself in a friendly argument with a fan over a player's performance, I won't have to rely on my opinion.
We'll be able to look it up.
Or, more likely, we'll already know.