Dan Altman has been many things. Economist. Best-selling author. British government advisor. Columnist. Consultant. Teacher.
All of those occupations revolved around the use of data, and “after about 15 years” Altman, in his own words, “got a bit bored and decided to try something a bit different.”
That boredom has seen the 46-year-old American turn his attention and expertise with data to sport, and in particular football. In 2013, Altman founded North Yard Analytics, a consulting firm that applies so-called Moneyball techniques to football, and set about his new venture.
“I bought some data from [statistics gatherers] Opta – a whole season of event data from the Premier League – and I started playing around with it,” he tells City A.M. “When I got some interesting results I reached out to a few clubs and fortunately I was able to start working with some of them.”
Altman worked with Manchester City’s parent organisation City Football Group before joining Kaplan-Levien Sports Group as head of strategy, a role which saw him work with Swansea City and DC United.
Despite a frustrating near two-year stint with Kaplan-Levien, Altman was not put off when he stepped away from the American ownership group.
“I realised that, even though they didn’t take much of my advice, the platform that I had created for evaluating players was very powerful, so I wanted to exploit the power of the platform and also give access to it to as many people as possible,” he says.
“I really felt that football analytics needed to be liberated and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. So I decided to expose a lot of what I had been doing over the past five or six years to a broad audience.”
The way to open up his wealth of data to the public is through his website smarterscout.com, which Altman describes as an “instantaneous, easy and objective way to evaluate players from 45 leagues around the world”.
Altman’s algorithms and mathematical models crunch the numbers and allow the user to assess different aspects of players’ performances and styles. It adjusts to compare players competing in leagues of various quality levels, to make it possible to predict how a player from the Belgian Jupiler League would perform in the Premier League.
More detailed options are sold to professional clients, like clubs, scouts and agents, who are “essentially subsidising” smarterscout, allowing it to be free for fans. The platform was launched in March 2019 and Altman says there are “thousands of users” with hundreds joining every day.
“These stats can help any fan interpret the game,” Altman adds. “They can offer an extra layer of insight to fans that are curious, but also for those who take it a bit more seriously by playing fantasy leagues or player trading platforms.”
Altman has an optimistic view. In the long run he hopes smarterscout can become “part of the lingua franca of football”, but in the shorter term there are encouraging signs.
Games like Football Manager, Fantasy Football and the growing popularity of platforms such as Football Index have made fans more in tune with statistics.
Meanwhile, the incorporation of metrics like expected goals into the wider conversation – it is now two and half years since Match of the Day began using xG – means becoming mainstream is not an altogether lofty goal.
“I think that making the pie bigger for everyone is the most important thing that we can do right now, and the best way to make the pie bigger is to get football analytics into the mainstream,” Altman says.
“I think that the arc of adoption is very positive. There will always be backlash – some of it is really sensationalised, everybody loves to see a fight – but overall the trend is being set by the clubs, who are taking these analytics very seriously, and I think that the fans will follow.”
Big Data FC
There is another more ambitious way in which Altman hopes to spread the gospel of football stats.
“It’s very frustrating to be working for a club or clubs and not have anyone heed your advice,” he says of his two-year spell at Swansea, which ended in October 2018.
“The solution to that is to own the club, so my investment group has been looking to take control of a lower division club so that we can show how powerful these tools are when they’re implemented in an intelligent way.”
Altman is looking at European football for his pet project, so you never know: Big Data FC could be coming to a league near you.