Chiraag Paul in conversation with Deepak Agarwal
Chiraag Paul is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Proem Sports, one of the pioneers in off-field sports analytics in India and Asia. Paul is also an experienced professional footballer, having represented and played for top-division clubs in England, Brazil and India. Deepak Agrawal, Associate Director of the ISB Applied Statistics and Computing Lab, caught up with Paul during his visit to the Hyderabad campus.
Deepak Agrawal: Welcome to ISB. We are keen to learn from your experiences as a sportsperson and as the founder of Proem Analytics. Can you tell us about your journey?
Chiraag Paul: Like any young boy, I was always very keen on sports. I was fortunate enough to play at a professional level. At a young age, I initially started out playing for the East Bengal Football Club in Kolkata. I also played a lot of cricket in Singapore, where I grew up.
At the academy level, unfortunately, I had a few injuries which meant that I could not continue. However, it was during that time that I understood the importance of feeling the connection with a club or a league or a sport.
One of the major things that drives a club or a sport, in general, are the people who watch it. These are the people who are passionate about it. I was fortunate to understand that there was a divide between what the fans want and how the board within a league or a club makes decisions. Around this point, we started developing the idea of bringing analytics into sports, so as to take decision-making on the right path.
There is a lot of analytics in sports. A lot of it is on-field. At Proem Sports, we are drivers of off-field analytics. We look at the business side of things from a strategic point of view.
As a player, you might be more interested in the on-field analytics, which helps improve player performance. Off-field analytics is more about giving opportunity to business managers, franchises and the leagues. Are these two kinds of analytics growing together or are they competing? Why did you choose to focus on off-field analytics instead of on-field?
While I was playing, we did use different forms of analytics to ensure that we were playing at an optimal level as professionals. I could see that first-hand because it affected my performance. The nutrients in my diet or the other players’ diets were very important, as was injury prevention.
However, I have always been more inclined towards the economic side of sports. I studied Economics and Finance and was looking for ways to drive commercial value while keeping fans happy.
Different industries outside the world of sport and entertainment use analytics to drive decisions anyway. Why can’t the sports industry start taking business decisions based on analytics?
How can off-field analytics help a sportsperson? Can off-field analytics also give some advantage to a player, maybe in terms of confidence?
A player in this day and age is deeply connected due to social media and other media. To drive performance, it has become even more important to ensure that players are in touch with their fan bases.
By using off-field analytics to drive decisions, the players also come to understand what leads to commercial value. Players have to be equally involved when it comes to clubs taking decisions. A lot of the sponsorship events are driven through the players.
Clubs today are chasing sponsorships at different levels. We can bring in analytics and help clubs decide who these sponsors should be, thinking less about the tenure or the monetary benefits from that relationship and more about how the fans connect to that brand. That, in turn, rubs off on the fans. They feel more connected to the club and the players. It helps both the sports business and sponsors increase fan value.
By using off-field analytics to drive decisions, the players also come to understand what leads to commercial value
We have to be able to understand gaps in the market and in decision-making, come out with new ideas to do it better and then create mechanisms to not just monetise but analyse whether we have taken the right decision or not. Players benefit as a by-product of the commercial value that can be driven through off-field analytics.
What is the current stage of usage of analytics in sports in India versus abroad?
When we initially set up Proem Sports, we were very clear that we wanted to be based in Asia. The world of sports, from a monetary perspective and also a fan-following perspective, is moving further east.
We are working globally but the reason we focus within Asia is that there is a lack of understanding of analytics. More important, there is a lack of understanding of the fundamentalquestion of data – what does data do, why is data important, how can we collect data?
Countries like Australia or even in Europe are slightly more advanced in the way they take decisions. There are clubs and leagues which base their economic and commercial decisions or marketing plans purely on analytics. India stands in a very good position when it comes to the value that sports businesses can derive from analytics.
In Asia, a lot of the decisions are gut feel or ad hoc decisions. That is the element that we are trying to understand, change and educate. We, in this region, are not early adopters. It was just in the last three or four years that we have had 12 different leagues come up in India. So it is very early days over here. But, there will come a point in the very near future where analytics will be driving decisions. We are glad that we are the first movers when it comes to that.
Sports is a more than ₹65 billion industry in India. What do you think are the lessons for sport franchisees and the leagues in India? Do they need more customisation due to this tremendous diversity?
Everything has to be customised, according to the sport, the club, the league and most importantly, the country. Sports is an industry where if you are able to bring in one customer, i.e., a fan, he or she is likely to stay with you for the rest of their lives. Such loyalty is unique. You don’t get that in other industries. If one was to give you a discount in any other industry on a consumer product, you would not mind changing from one product to the other. You will not do that with sports. If my team is not doing well today, I will still stick with that team, maybe because it is from the same region, or maybe because I like a player in that team.
Today a lot of the fan following, especially in cricket, is based on where the players are. The stakes for clubs revolve around player retention. If you have a top player in one team, you will get a high fan following for that team because of the player and not so much the club.
When a club starts taking decisions based on the fans, then even if a player moves to a different club, the fans will stay on with that core club. For example, in the West, even if a player moves from Club A to Club B, the fan following for Club A does not go away.
How will the use of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) help sports analytics as a business? What kinds of capabilities or skills could be incorporated?
Ten years ago, big data was being used a lot. Now we have AI and ML being used in a big way in wearable technology and on-field analytics. Off-field analytics is still at a nascent stage. Proem’s cutting-edge data platform Organon is bringing in predictive analytics. The influence of AI and ML becomes relevant when it comes to decisions that need to be taken on a daily basis at a rapid pace.
A lot of the decisions that we influence are mid-term to long-term decisions. However, day-to-day operational decisions can be made in a more systematic and robust way. The intelligence that we provide should become more customised so that clubs do not have to think too much about it.
In Asia, a lot of the decisions are gut feel or ad hoc decisions. That is the element that we are trying to understand, change and educate.
We now have various leagues such as the Indian Premium League (IPL), the Indian Sports League (ISL) and the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). We also have a lot of spectator interest in tennis and badminton. There are success stories like kabaddi. Sports like tennis have not had the same success path. What could be the reason?
A very good example would be PKL. If you have ever been to a PKL game, the level of excitement during the game is magnificent. It is beautiful to watch. Kabaddi was well-known, but it was not always as popular as it is today.
PKL’s problem was making the sport popular again. Simple things helped: attractive colours in the grounds and the stadiums. The gender break-up is surprising: there are almost equal numbers of males and females watching kabaddi. So it is not dominated by one particular gender or demographic, whether young or old, rural or urban, educated or not. Kabaddi has been very successful along those lines. Kabaddi had to educate people about the sport, especially the young generation who have never watched kabaddi live. So the issues that they had to deal with were very different from other sports.
IPL did not have that problem of making the viewers understand the game. Their problem was scheduling — when do we want talent to play? You have got to get all the Boards on board. There is international cricket going on as well. So to answer those questions from a league’s perspective or a club’s perspective, they have very different issues and problems to deal with. We can address these issues because we are not bound by a sport or a region.
The advantage with an analytics perspective, especially off-field analytics and business analytics, is that you are not bound by the complexities that bind companies. With any other sort of on-field analytics, a lot of the research and development has to go into solving one problem for one sport. That then can be scaled into other things. We do not have that problem. We can address different issues simultaneously and work with different clients. The beauty of off-field analytics versus on-field is about looking at the broader picture and working backwards towards a solution.
From the perspective of fan engagement, there is a lot of celebrity influence in the sports business currently. Film stars like Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham and Ranbir Kapoor are involved in sports like kabaddi and football. Are the fans consumers of sport or consumers of a celebrity? How can we quantify these differences?
Fans initially come in for the celebrity. Over time, once they start understanding the sport and the team, they move on from being a fan of the celebrity to being a fan of the club or the sport.
We see that influence in kabaddi as well. Initially, because of the lack of understanding of the sport, a lot of interest was being driven through celebrity management. However, the sport itself is so entertaining that over time, it started driving value and getting packed houses without the help of celebrities.
Even with the ISL, in the first few seasons, they had high-profile players like [Alessandro] Del Piero. Over the years, the stadium attendance and following of the clubs or the leagues came to be based not so much on the celebrity footballer but also on the team itself.
Consider the Bengaluru FC match. You might not have packed houses but the level of excitement and chanting was purely because of the love of the team. We are witnessing the change. Over a period of time, the loyalty is moving on from just celebrity to the game and the club.
Sports is an industry where if you are able to bring in one fan, he or she is likely to stay with you for the rest of their lives. Such loyalty is unique. You don’t get that in other industries.
The analytics actually help in understanding this. There is a lot of information now online on the digital interactions that a club is having. We read through thousands and millions of different comments and words. Then we try and analyse the fan psyche to understand why he or she is still attending the games. So, to give you a few numbers, yes, of course, we find that in the first few seasons, the influence of a celebrity is large. But towards the end of the third season, we see that fans generally don’t talk so much about the celebrity. The interest moves on to the club. They start to talk about a player they might not have known in the past. That is very encouraging to see.
As with anything new, the importance of having a known face is crucial. This is where celebrities come in. They help the cause. For a novice — and this is not sport-specific — having a known face adds much value to the product. In this case, the product is the sports industry.
To become a sports analytics professional, do you need to be an expert in sports or an expert in analytics?
You don’t need to be an expert in sports per se. However, the fundamental thing that you need is passion. Everyone in our team today is passionate about sport.
Proem wants to be able to influence the world of sport so that people make better decisions. We are passionate about that vision and we are as passionate about sport. We have an intra-company rivalry between Arsenal fans and Manchester United fans. I am a Manchester United fan. Pareekshit, our Head of Technology, is an Arsenal fan.
As with any other industry, there are no fixed hours in what we do. We travel across the world. I am in different cities every few days because of the different clients we work with. It is difficult on the body and mind, but what drives us is the fact that we are influencing decisions in the sports industry and that we love sport. Everything else, you will learn on the job. At the end of the day, we are fans.
What advice can you give to analytics students on the kind of technical skills they require?
One part of what we do is complex coding. Our patented algorithms drive our products. We need top-level coders at all levels. Knowing different coding languages is very important if you are looking at the technical aspects. Proem Sports is a product- and a service-based company. The technical know-how is essential when you are developing the product. Second is having an analytical mind, a mind which asks questions. We may not know what the answer is but we are asking the right questions. So having the technical knowledge when it comes to the different coding languages would be great but asking relevant questions is crucial, apart from the passion that we spoke about before.
We principally work as consultants with our clients. We use the products to deliver results, collect data, sift through the data and then help rewire decisions. What is important is being confident with the client, knowing what you are saying, knowing the sport.
When we are hiring, what we really look for are two things. First is whether that person is genuinely passionate about sports. Sports is a very cool industry. But, over the number of hours and days that you log, you see that it is difficult. It is not cool anymore. So the passion is very important. You are still going to the stadium, you are still getting to see games and those sorts of things but you have to do a lot of work as well.
The other thing is confidence in questioning processes. There is no right answer. We need to have questions where we can find answers in different ways and then come to one solution. Interacting with a CEO or Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), the owner of a club or a league and saying that we need to be looking at the issues from this perspective and not this perspective — that requires a level of confidence.
What do you see as the future of sports analytics in India?
A lot of on-field analytics, when it comes to wearable technology. More injury prevention modules. Those sorts of things will come in, especially for the new leagues.
The future of sport in general in the country is extremely bright from a talent and business perspective. We can see that with the level of investment. From a sports analytics perspective, there are a lot of things that this country is yet to adapt. If you are looking to be someone who wants to be part of that change, then this is a very, very exciting industry.
We are adapting to new games every single day. There is a poker league, for example. Golf is an exciting game. Tennis is now getting to another level. Badminton has always been huge in this part of the world but now we see a huge growth in it from a league perspective. Football and cricket, the obvious ones already exist. There are leagues in regions as well. There are cricket leagues in West Bengal and Karnataka. That is where I think the future is — adapting to new games, new sports and then creating leagues to popularise them.
What would be the last piece of advice that you would give to sports associations, to regulators, to leagues, to clubs and to students?
Now more than ever, there is potential for many different sports bringing in commercial value. We are not just a cricket country anymore. We have cricket, football, kabaddi, tennis. How do we leverage this diversity? How do regulators ensure not only commercial value but also India’s performance in the Olympics?
Leagues should slowly change from taking decisions which will garner results in the short term to recognising the possibility of results on a mid-term and long-term basis. Can a league say this is where we want to reach in two years, in seven years and in 15 years?
Kabaddi had to educate people about the sport, especially the young. IPL did not have that problem of making viewers understand the game.
What is most important and not happening today is a two-year plan on which people are focused and from which they are working backwards. We would love to see a focus on a 15 year plan. A lot of the development in the Middle-East, Europe and everywhere else over the long term was based on that. You have a long-term vision and plan and you work backwards from that.
Where Proem Sports comes in and helps is this form of analytics. Clubs and leagues ever so often look for short-term results. We will give you short-term results. You will see that in the decisions that you take. But what is more important is those short-term results should be leading somewhere.
We find a lot of clubs and leagues changing personnel not only on the field, but even in the boardroom. That creates a roadblock when it comes to long-term thinking. Let the short term be the by-product of long-term planning and not the other way around.
To students, if you are someone who is genuinely passionate about sport, gone are the days when you could not consider sports or the sports industry as a professional option. For a long time, people believed that getting into the sports industry was a passion statement, or that it was a part-time job. Today, more than ever, sport is a genuine full-time job. It is something which will require, like anything else, a lot of effort, a lot of passion. Analyse and figure out which element of the sports industry you would want to be a part of, do the research on how that industry is adding value to the world of sport. Then go out and do it.
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