THE REVOLUTION OF DATA WITHIN SPORTS : THE PARALLEL BETWEEN EQUINE SPORTS AND FOOTBALL BY JÉRÔME LESTIR
Jérôme Lestir, “Strategy and Operating Manager for Arioneo” has been the former Deputy CEO of LOSC for more than ten years. He experienced the arrival of data in football. His experience on the subject is all the more interesting as he is the owner of the LUCKY STAR trotting stable, and can therefore also testify to the arrival of data in the equestrian world and draw a comparison of the reception it has received in each sector.
In the world of football, the arrival of data was initially met with a mixed reception. Indeed, changing a way of coaching by including numbers is not easy. The challenge has been to understand how to take advantage of the thousands of data now available to supplement the trainer’s opinion of the players.
Today, football can no longer do without data: from the preparation to the post-match period, everything is carefully studied in order to create the best strategies for performance. The other argument is medical: the daily monitoring of data collected during training helps to prevent injuries, for example. While twenty years ago data was just a competitive advantage for some clubs, today it is a must and an integral part of every club’s strategy. Moreover, data companies are flourishing and the presence of data analysts on the edge of the field has become commonplace.
The reason why data is so valuable is that it allows a better understanding of performance and recovery mechanisms. Sports betting has also been revolutionised by the arrival of data. However, it is not an absolute science. Some statistically perfect matches in terms of data have been won by the losing team, as was the case with Spain in the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup. At the same time, it is thanks to the analysis of his players’ data that Didier Deschamps and his staff, led by the Performance Director, Greg Dupont, is able to give them a constructive and complete feedback between each match. In addition to the data related to the kilometers covered, we can mention elements related to the balls played, successful passes, defensive moves, throw-ins, passes and other shots. These data are compiled and correlated with the average data recorded per game and per position where the result was the one hoped for. When this is not the case, a correction is required, and a victory follows.
The question then remains: will the world of horseracing follow the same path? Here is Jérôme Lestir’s analysis.
Could you tell us more about your career and the way data came in your way ?
I began my career in the marketing agency Sporfive Group in 1997 on the eve of France’s first major World Cup victory. I spent 2 seasons at FC Nantes then joined the Troyes club as Marketing and Sales Director. Following this experience I joined the LOSC, which was then in L2, where we were lucky enough to be able to build this club which had been suffering for many years from the tremendous popular success of its neighbour, RC Lens. We started from a blank page and the immediate results of the sports group at the time gave us the “media time”, which clubs no longer have today due to the impatience of the environment, necessary to build a major club. The club took part in the European Cups for 7 out of the next 10 years, allowing us to build a multifunctional and covered stadium with 50,000 seats, as well as a training centre on 40 hectares with the ambition to give the club the assets that would enable it to face more unstable periods in the future.
We saw the arrival of data at the beginning of the 2000s, and the LOSC was one of the first clubs in France to call on specialists, a company coming from Nice called Amisco, which now belongs to the world giant of data through sport, the American STATS. At the time, we only had raw data, which seems simple today but which we had difficulty interpreting: heart rate, recovery, speed, … but the revolution was already underway, because we were seeing things, accompanied by trainers who had a rather empirical but nevertheless limited vision of their jobs. The trainers of the time had often built their knowledge on feelings coupled with experience. Data quickly shook their certainties. The best were able to question themselves in order to understand and move forward. It should be noted that things were not simple and that the period of market education was long and painful. The work of the physical trainer gained credibility. The organisation was turned upside down and a new profile appeared around the field, the Data Scientist, which at the time still had no title. The real revolution was the individual approach to performance when the culture of team sports was still that of a group in which the individual was only a cog. By individualising each preparation, elements appeared that allowed the detection of future pathologies. Arioneo’s EQUIMETRE now makes this kind of thing possible. Of course, at first it was very difficult because the trainers and players felt they were being watched and judged on their skills and investment. They quickly realised that the tool allowed them to be more successful by optimising the training load. First, the team’s training was analysed and then its behavior in the game in order to correlate the data. While we had a better understanding of our own group’s preparation, we, like the other clubs who quickly joined us, learned to work and understand the behaviour of our opponents.
It’s the same subject today with Arioneo, who is one of the world leaders in training data and who is best placed to take an interest in racing.
The subject has also long been sensitive because it relates to health, but the general fear disappeared when the medical world began to exploit the data. Necessarily when a technology like this comes into this kind of industry it creates a lot of tension which fades away when the data is understood by everyone, which takes time and is a phenomenal amount of work.
The first clubs in Europe to have taken an interest in it were the English ones. But of course, it was the Americans who had been ahead of everyone for a long time in the NBA and LNB, the subject of which is treated forcefully in the film “Moneyball” with Brad Pitt.
In 2005 I think we can say that all the ambitious league 1 clubs were equipped.
What is your experience in horse racing ?
I have experience as an owner. I started with owning flat horses then we created with 2 friends a stable of trotters. It’s a great adventure that I recommend to all of those who want to share strong emotions with friends. It should be noted, however, that the experience can be difficult for those who like to rationalise things. Profitability is difficult because the understanding of the athletic horse is still limited to what I previously described in football in the early 2000s.
When I learned that Erwan Mellerio and Valentin Rapin were looking for partners to join them, I didn’t hesitate to do so. The very idea of being able to “make the athletic horse speak” like sports specialists do convinced me to follow them.
Today Arioneo monitors more than 4000 horses on a daily basis with about a hundred trainers and veterinarians around the world.
The data obtained is starting to reveal great things for owners, trainers, institutions, veterinarians and even punters.
This approach is also part of an era that has understood that respect for the animal must be part of the daily life of the industry. This is a strong reason why I decided to invest in this company.
Do you think that the transition towards a daily use of data will be faster or slower than in football ?
In the world of football, in five years, data has become indispensable. That’s what we’re experiencing in the races since Arioneo was created in 2015. It’s a long road to overcome the reluctance of many people. In the equestrian world, traditions are deeply rooted and difficult to change.
The young generations of trainers who are taking over have a keen eye on these issues. We can be optimistic and my conviction is reinforced by the difficult period we have just lived through, since trainers, in order to remain attractive, need to communicate better with their owners.
On the other hand, there will be a need for significant precision on what the data have to tell. The data must be ready-to-use. We’ve felt it in football. If the information and the keys to analysing it must be pertinently brought, the data must accompany and not replace the trainer’s final decision. It is always the trainer who makes the final decision about training, about programming. His know-how in this area is irreplaceable.
Furthermore, if the horse betting sector wants to renew itself and attract the younger generations, it will be necessary to give data to the younger generations. Today, on sports betting sites, the data, which is not exceptional either, is nevertheless very present with a sizeable lead over horseracing, whereas sports betting is more recent: a neophyte is able to form an opinion on his sports betting, but a neophyte who wishes to bet in the horseraces, does not have enough information for me, and it is above all the same as it has always been.
Will the racing industry eventually use data as much as football ?
Obviously, yes. There is a real need to individualise performance and to consider each horse as a unique individual and above all as an athlete. This is one of the biggest issues in the industry : Making of racing a sports spectacle and not just a means of betting. The production of the show, its media coverage, the approach of its actors must be reviewed and football can be an example, at least on this subject.
Why are some people reluctant to use data in this industry according to you ?
I think that transparency is frightening because it appears to be a way of calling into question the work of many players in the sector. Yet the opposite is happening. Data allows the optimisation of results and better communication with the owners.
The idea in the long run is also to extract data for the betters. This still represents a challenge, even in football, where the big players in the betting world and those in the connected training world do not communicate enough with each other to create content for the bettors.
What are the limits of data within sport ?
All this is still so new, the data is so numerous and still difficult to prioritise, the analytical professions are still inventing themselves. It’s also very rich because some trainers look at one sort of data, others at another parameter, and the whole ecosystem is enriched by these exchanges on ways of analysing data. But an overload of information can be detrimental to the whole business because those to whom the data is addressed don’t immediately understand it and those who sell it don’t necessarily know how to grasp it. To overcome this gridlock, the business must try to simplify the discourse as much as possible. Companies that manage to address their audience without losing them will win the day.
As far as I’m concerned, we’re still in horse racing waiting for the data analysts who will be on the sidelines, as we’ve seen in football on the edge of the field. Maybe former trainers who will specialise in this sector, maybe technicians, or TV consultants, I am still rather undecided when I try to answer the question: Who will be the people capable of investing in these professions of racehorse analysis? Who will be the people capable of becoming experts in this field, with the ability to simplify the data to make it intelligible?
How do you forsee Arioneo’s future ?
I am obviously very optimistic about the future of this company, the latest promises made around the world are very encouraging! Arioneo is anchoring itself in a period when the entire horse racing world will have to reinvent itself.
Betting is dropping, the average age of the bettors is rising, competition from sports is intensifying, and the whole system will have to reinvent itself.
Today the Equimetre tool is a step ahead of its competitors: from the trainer to the bettor, through institutions, auction houses, veterinarians, I think the product can meet all expectations. Today I think that Arioneo has a significant lead over its Japanese, Australian and British competitors on health thanks to its patent on its electrodes of medical precision, which allow you to get an electrocardiogram at effort and at full speed, but its lead is also in my opinion on the optimisation of performance.
The issue at stake here is the betting, which all this data, once correlated with the races, will inevitably revolutionise.
EQUIMETRE is a technology dedicated to the race horse training and allows to measure :
HEART RATE (HR LEVEL DURING EFFORT / AT REST)
GPS (DISTANCE / SPEED / INTERVALS / COURSE)
LOCOMOTION (STRIDE LENGTH / STRIDE FREQUENCY)