Arnaud Kenigsberg about football and data

"We have been working on The Football Genie for many years. It's the Google of football statistics, the idea is to reverse the way we use statistics."

ESSEC Sports Chair postdoctoral fellow Amr Alem talks to Arnaud Kenigsberg, CEO of Sport 360 and founder of and The Football Genie, about football and data.

Amr: You graduated from ESSEC in 2005. Can you talk about this experience and what it brought you?

Arnaud: I went to ESSEC with a very specific and unusual goal: to become a sports journalist. It wasn't necessarily the most traditional way to do this. But I said to myself that ESSEC is a school that trains people very well, that has a very good reputation, and that allows you to open a lot of doors. It was not the most obvious way, but here I was, I did two years of preparatory classes and it seemed interesting to me to go through ESSEC, and so I entered with this very precise objective to do sports journalism.

Amr: How was then your training organized?

Arnaud: The first year was quite general with a lot of subjects that were quite interesting. From the second year, I specialized in marketing and communication to try to orientate my career path as much as possible towards what I wanted to do later on. And then, in parallel, I did internships in journalism where I was well trained in the profession, especially in the second internship, oriented towards sports, at Sport 24, which today belongs to Le Figaro. That's when I came up with the idea of having a statistical tool to help sports journalists, especially for football: the idea was to have all the figures on all the players, i.e. everything that could be used to feed into an article and make it more enriched and more interesting for the reader.

At that time, in 2001-02, apart from the player files produced by the newspaper L'Équipe, there was nothing. So, I saw a real gap in this market, which could really help journalists to work better. At ESSEC, I had a course on Microsoft Access, which I took advantage of to practice by creating a database on football using this software. I started to enter forms, data... and one thing leading to another, my footballdatabase project was born, in a home-made way. I started with the Ligue 1, then the 5 big European leagues. I got the taste for feeding this database, and used it for all the statistics I could use in my articles.

Amr: Then comes your graduation.

Arnaud: When I left college, I was hired by Sport 24 as a freelancer. I worked there mostly in the evenings and on weekends. This left me some free time during the day, which I devoted to the development of footballdatabase, but I had to change software because I had reached the limits of Microsoft Access. I then had to train myself to create a website with PHP and SQL protocols, in a self-taught way. It took me two years to learn all the techniques and succeed in this conversion. In 2007, I launched the website, which is the result of my past experiences, all connected to each other.

Amr: What was your main aim with this project?

Arnaud: My goal was to grow the site, and connect with other people like me, focused on research and statistics with the desire to create a data base and develop it. In just a few months, people joined me from all over the world, to feed the site and help it grow. Until then, my ambition was not professional: my idea was to set up a fun tool, but I hadn't necessarily thought about a business model that would support it. At that time, I thought that there are people interested in it, and I could convert them into customers. I then had the following idea: the site is primarily used by journalists, so there are other stakeholders, other than L'Equipe, who would need the various statistics made available to them so that their publications can better compete with L'Equipe.

On this basis, I started to approach sports media, but I was almost too innovative on this subject, because the decision-makers expressed little interest in it. The market was not mature at all, but I had some clients. This allowed me to recruit employees but also to reach a financial break-even point. I then decided to stop my activity at Sport 24, because it was becoming impossible to run both activities at the same time. After a year and a half, my project was not taking off. The financing of my investments became more and more difficult. I then found a job in the private sector, while continuing to develop my database, but it had clearly become a passion-project at that time. This continued for 10 years. Meanwhile, I developed a new version of the site in 2018, with restructuring of the database to make it more efficient.

In 2020, I decided to get back to footballdatabase full time, with ten years of professional experience, where I had learned a lot from on marketing, business, and communication. I launched a fundraising of €200.000 from private actors, with well-known people taking part, like Jimmy Adjovi-Boco (former player of RC Lens and founder of the association "Djambars" which aims at integration through football), François Pesenti (former boss of RMC Sport who is now CEO of FC Toulon), Yoann Poulard (former football player and manager of AC Ajaccio), Thomas Schmider (founder of Prozone, one of the competitors of Opta Sport, bought by Stats) and many others...

Amr: What is your main ambition now?

Arnaud: The ambition is very clear: to work on innovative projects. We got €100.000 in support from the BPI (Banque Publique d’Investissement), convinced by our innovative projects. Conquering the market is our first objective today, with a very different positioning from that of Opta Sport which works on micro data. We come as a complement to that and not as a direct competitor, because of the rather historical and macro data that we offer.

Amr: Your platform has data on 470,000 players and nearly 30,000 coaches, 180 countries worldwide for nearly 900 competitions. Today, what are your main development levers?

Arnaud: Today, footballdatabase is a showcase site: the idea is that it is a source of information, but that it also supports our other innovative projects. The main part of the business remains in BtoB. We have broadened our field of action: we are not only interested in the media today but also in clubs. We have recently developed an offer for the technical staff of football clubs to provide them with an artificial intelligence that allows us to determine the value/performance of a player over a year.

Thanks to this, we are able to determine the players that should be considered for recruitment and we offer this consulting to the club’s recruiting team. With this, we are reinventing the club-agent contact, which until now has worked as follows: when a club needs a player in a particular position, it contacts a whole bunch of agents to ask them which players they can offer. Today, with our tool, a club can directly benchmark the players evolving in the position it is looking for, in 180 countries, compare their performance, and then follow/contact them. Today, we place ourselves in the position of advising technical staff and sports directors to help them optimize their recruitments, on a scientific basis.

Amr: How do you control the quality of the information provided by your different collaborators?

Arnaud: We have set up a quality control and compliance process to validate the data. We also do a lot of work upstream, when recruiting correspondents, to ensure that they are rigorous and verify the information they provide. We have zero tolerance [for inaccurate information]. We also randomly check the information we have at our disposal to ensure that there are no errors.

Amr: What about the FBDB index?

Arnaud: It's a kind of football version of the ATP ranking (a merit-based method used by the Association of Tennis Professionals for determining players’ ranking). We have determined six categories of players (goalkeeper, central defender, lateral defender, midfielder, attacking midfielder and striker) and based on a certain number of criteria which vary from one position to another, we are able to say which player is the best in his position in the world over the past year. We have adapted this index into an offer for the clubs, in order to identify players who are not necessarily known, in leagues that are not broadcasted, but who are performing well.

Amr: What is your competitive advantage over a website like Transfermarkt?

Arnaud: Their offer is mainly in BtoC. They also have a huge database, more or less equivalent to ours, the difference between them and us is the value of the players they offer, which surveys have shown to be unreliable. What we do is scientific, objective, with calibrations made in a scientific way, which makes the process completely reliable. We don't say that this player is worth this amount of money, which depends on tons of parameters, including some not scientific ones, but we can say that this player is better than another.

Amr: In terms of development levers, you recently launched The Football Genie, a sort of Google of football statistics. If you had to present it in more detail, what would you say?

Arnaud: We have been working on The Football Genie for many years. As you said, it's the Google of football statistics, the idea is to reverse the way we consume statistics. Today, when we look for a statistic, we go to specialized sites to look for information until we find it or not. We have reversed this logic by saying to ourselves, people waste time looking for statistics, so we will offer them an all-in-one solution, so the idea is to allow them to ask the question they want and get the answer instantly.

Amr: Who is this website for?

Arnaud: Mainly journalists, very clearly. It can also be of interest to the technical staff of clubs in general, and then the idea is to market this tool in a customized way to clubs: the PSG Genie, for example, will be able to answer all the questions that the fans of the club have about it. I'm also thinking of sponsors who put a lot of money into football and who can now have a dedicated tool/application showing their commitment to the sport through this tool that will make them visible to fans when they are looking for one information or another.

Amr: Clubs traditionally used to rely on networks and word of mouth when recruiting players. Journalists also did not use to rely very heavily on statistics. Have you seen the use of data by football clubs and journalists change over time?

Arnaud: Yes, when I started this project in 2007, I realized that we were far behind the United States where statistics were already commonplace. Today, thanks to the broadcasters, we realize that statistics have become something useful and quite widely used. Statistics have become familiar to this world.

Amr: But they must be used wisely.

Arnaud: Indeed, we can make the figures say many things that they do not say. The example of "expected goals" is very striking in this respect. Broadcasters have been talking about it a lot for the last few years, but in my opinion it is a huge hoax. It is no longer in the realm of statistics but in the realm of science fiction. It is assumed that an action can be performed in the same way every time and lead to a goal. But this is not true, reality is singular in that all the actors taking part in it are singular. This is fantasy projection to which I do not subscribe. It is ludicrous. For me, the limit is there: we must confine ourselves to the numbers, give them meaning, and make them speak in the most useful way possible.

Amr: Sport and technology meet today in Web 3.0, especially on fan tokens and NFT. What is your interpretation of the evolution of this relationship?

Arnaud: At the moment, I have a rather limited vision of the impact of NFTs on the football world. It's a fad in a way, where everyone is getting into it, doing everything and anything. In my opinion, it is possible that this market goes downhill because there is not much behind it. Today, Sorare, one of the beautiful French unicorns, is succeeding, but there is a lot of speculation that has come at the detriment of many people because if some people win, others lose. From this point of view, I find it difficult to see a direct and permanent connection between NFT and sport.