When Passions Collide: Rugby, Technology and Performance Analytics.
An Interview with Andrew Sullivan, former coach/performance analyst with New Zealand Rugby and STATS.com Director.
Andrew Sullivan was destined for a career in SportsTech, even if he didn’t foresee how two of his passions would eventually collide, back in his days as a sports performance analyst in New Zealand.
“I had three loves, that of sports, the Crusaders, and Information Technology,” says Andrew, who had originally begun a career as a Systems Analyst in IT, before being snapped up by New Zealand Rugby.
Andrew spent almost a decade working as a coach and sports performance analyst for the Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby, working with the Crusaders, New Zealand Rugby and of course, the All Blacks. He went on to advise Australian Rugby Union for a further 6 years, before being headhunted by STATS, to work as a multi-sport product manager.
STATS geographic reach extends to Europe, China, Australia, and Africa, and its tech analyses athletic performance to deliver commercial insights, enabling coaches and front-office personnel to make intelligent decisions and gain competitive advantage. STATS boasts a database of over 100,000 players, and captures proprietary data from around 12,000 sporting events each year. Their software combines data analytics and video tracking to analyse matches, trends, opposition scouting opportunities and more.
“I have to admit, the transition from sports to sportstech was tough. My first role with STATS had almost as steep a learning curve as the one I faced at the start of my coaching career. My very first technology role focussed heavily on content, streaming video and live events. There was a lot to learn on the software side, but it was also incredibly exciting. With technology changing so quickly it meant that each day was about finding new opportunities – finding an edge – something that I was used to when working with athletes.”
Andrew has thrived in the STATS environment, though travel has been inevitable. With a HQ in Chicago, and a new office in Limerick, it means some time on the road. However, this isn’t too much of a change, life on the road with the Crusaders, and the All Blacks, took him all over the world, working with their high performance athletes.
We discussed the challenge athletes face, when retiring from a sporting career. Professional athletes are often faced with serious career challenges once they reach their 30’s. Many athletes have begun to address the lack of meaningful support following high profile athletic careers, highlighted by recent press and interviews with the likes of Olympic badminton player Gail Emms and others.
Andrew believes that player welfare is key. He highlights how clubs like the Crusaders are leading the way.
“The life of a pro athlete is short, and player welfare is key. For example, the Crusaders are totally committed to ensuring players make the transition from performance to post-performance smoothly. The player welfare officer will help athletes identify a new role, they will look at financial planning, and ensure that players can make that transition smoothly and effectively.”
One example of an athlete-turned-entrepreneur is JP Hartigan, a Limerick native and rugby player who turned to product design in college, and launched his rugby tackle dummy back in 2009. JP was pro-active in his efforts, and sought out Andrew’s advice back in the early days of product development, when Andrew was working with New Zealand Rugby.
“It’s great to be back in Limerick again, in fact, one of the most promising startups I’ve seen in the space came from here. I met JP Hartigan of Shadowman back in 2010 as he was beginning to launch his tackle dummy into the US market. I was here with Australian Rugby, and he got in touch. I think JP got it right – he identified a problem, and then he helped to solve it. He has managed to effectively control the load on players as they tackled. I have watched his progress with interest, and I’m delighted that he’s made such a big impact on US football.”
Concussion in rugby, and American football, is a topical subject.
When asked his opinion, Andrew said;
“It’s very important to address the issue of concussion and brain injury at the very earliest coaching opportunity, from day one for the youngest athletes. Prevention and coaching methodology is key.”
However, many clubs rely on volunteer and amateur coaches. And in this Andrew says that the education starts from the top with World Rugby and governing bodies and he emphasises that they are doing a good job with online coaching tools and education. The severity of risk is such that the best practice must be applied throughout coaching systems, to protect all of those that play. SportsTech has generated interesting examples in this space – such as mouth guards that measure the impact of a tackle, however, this is a diagnostic rather than a preventative tool. It will be interesting to see how wearables, smart fabrics and player analytics are applied to solve this problem in the future.
STATS has a fairly international scope, so how big a part does rugby play in that mix?
“STATS has a global focus, but the major elements would be worldwide soccer, international rugby and then the major US sports. The work we’re doing around optical tracking and pixel tracking is immensely fascinating, the data we are drawing down on player performance is second to none. When we also consider the new advantages available from machine learning and player outcome tracking, the future is wide open. Not only can we automate data analysis, we can start to understand playing styles, player performance and so much more.”
“Working with players gave me the euphoria and satisfaction of helping people to achieve their goals. Yes I miss that, however, working on the technology side is a new kind of exciting. There really is no limit to how much we can learn and I’m very happy to be in the heart of that kind of action.”
In conversation with Emily Ross of SportsTech Ireland, Limerick Oct, 2017, at the Savoy Hotel. Follow Andrew on twitter @sydneydigit for more rugby and sportstech insights.