Opta Forum: The event where clubs scout for data science talent

Will Spearman, now Liverpool's Head of Research, presenting a the 2017 Opta Forum

Will Spearman, now Liverpool's Head of Research, presenting a the 2017 Opta Forum

THE first Opta Forum took place at Birkbeck University in London and about 40 people were there.

On Wednesday, the 11th edition will be held at The Mermaid in Blackfriars and more than 400 people from 100 clubs, federations and leagues will be in attendance. Over the course of the last decade, the Forum has become a key date in the football calendar and a recruiting ground for clubs scouting for the brightest data science talent.

“We do a questionnaire every year after the event and there are a lot of people who say, ‘We are looking at people and ideas with an eye on potential to recruit,’” explains Andy Cooper, Marketing Specialist at Opta’s owners, Stats Perform. “You’re scouting talent and looking for people who might be doing interesting things that resonate with how you would want your department to work.”

The Forum was the brainchild of former Opta Marketing Co-ordinator Simon Farrant, who now works for Deltatre.

"The winners get the platform to present in front of representatives from over 100 clubs, federations and leagues." Andy Cooper, Stats Perform

“I think he took inspiration from a lot of the sport analytics conferences that took place in the US, MIT Sloan being the most long-standing,” says Cooper. “We sensed that there was a desire and opportunity in the football industry to put on something focused 100% on applying advanced analytics in pro football.

“We had a really rich data set - we had been collecting x.y data since 2006 - and it was really a chance to make a sample set of this data available to this growing data science community and give them an opportunity to send in proposals and ideas for novel ways for how this data could be applied in a real-life environment.”

Every year, data scientists, both professional and amateur, are invited to submit proposals for research projects to present. These can be in an open category or in response to a specific question or theme posed by a practitioner.

The winners get to present their projects on stage or in the form of a poster (where the idea is literally presented on a paper poster).

This year’s practitioner theme was set by Mathieu Lacome, the Chief Performance and Analytics Officer at Parma in Italy and is “Categorising player styles to enhance recruitment profiling.”

Cooper explains: “About six months before the event, we put out a call for proposals, and people can send in a two-page proposal explaining what their idea is, why it’s relevant, the methodology and how it could be used in a real-life setting.

And here’s the interesting bit: the proposals are anonymised before being sent to a panel of judges who recommend their favourites.

“You are judged on your idea, not who you are, which is one of the reasons why the Forum has been successful,” Cooper says. “There are no limits on who can apply and we cast the net far and wide.

“The winners get the platform to present in front of representatives from over 100 clubs, federations and leagues. It gives them chance to showcase their work but also show they can present a complex idea in a digestible way with a sport-first concept. In short, you could call that football language.

“Those are skills that are crucial if you’re going to work in a club environment in future.”


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There is an award for the stand-out submission from an undergraduate, which last year went to Jack Pamukci, a graduate of the UNC Charlotte College of Computing and Informatics, who subsequently went on to get an internship with Sarah Rudd’s src | ftbl.

“Eighty per cent of the people who present have never presented before, so they are new faces and names,” says Cooper.

“It’s a real diverse list of people. We have an academic group from a University in Japan, a group from a University in South Korea, someone from Brazil, a contingent from US, a few from Central Europe. It genuinely is global in scope.”

The winners will be part of an agenda that also features the likes of Phil Giles, the Director of Football at Brentford, and Filippo Lorenzon, Head of Analysis at Inter Milan.

Many of those who have won submissions to present their research at the Forum have gone on to become "rock stars of the industry", in the words of Lacome. They include Mladen Sormaz, now Sporting Director of Barnsley, who presented in 2019; John-Mark Sisman, now Data Scientist and previously of Manchester City, who presented in 2018; and Joe Mulberry, now Head of Strategy and Innovation at Right to Dream, who presented in 2019.

Here's a spotlight on three Forum presenters who have gone on to make big names in the game:

Will Spearman (2017)

Delivered a presentation on pitch control in 2016 and returned in 2017 with a project applying event and tracking data to assess the likelihood of a pass being completed. At the time, Spearman was working for Hudl. A year later he joined Liverpool as their Lead Data Scientist. Is now their Director of Research - one of the top data science roles in world football.

Karun Singh (2020)

Applying deep learning processes to tracking data, Singh explained how AI technology can help match analysts quickly identify scenarios such as counter-attacks across multiple games without having to scour through hours of video. At the time, he was working for Facebook as a Software Engineer. In October 2022 was appointed as a Data Scientist by Arsenal.

Vignesh Jayanth (2021)

Responding to a question put forward by Lucy Rushton (who is now General Manager of Bay FC), Jayanth focused on identifying and evaluating the best attacking strategies to penetrate a high press from short goal kicks. Five months later, he was recruited by Stade Rennais as a Data Scientist. In December 2023, he moved to AS Monaco as Head of Sporting Insight.

2024 OPTA FORUM AGENDA 

Agenda for the 2024 Opta Forum 

Agenda for the 2024 Opta Forum 

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