Three lessons in performance measurement from the British & Irish Lions

Data is transforming business and sport. But, what data should we collect, how do we identify KPIs and what decisions do we as human beings still need to take?

Lions rugby team stand in a line with arms around each other

“Data analysis, when I played, was a notebook in which you kept a record of what weights you were lifting during gym sessions,” says Stuart Lang, former Scotland Rugby Union international player and a Partner at Ernst & Young LLP. 

Today’s professional sports players are fitted with GPS devices to track their movements. Kits are tested to ensure players don’t overheat, and biometrics are used to track and optimize both their performance and recovery. 

“Coaches and players can both use data to improve performance,” says Lang. “Data provides empirical evidence to prove trends and outcomes, whereas previously, we relied on gut-feel and visual interpretation.”

Challenge 1: Building the right team

Digital transformation relies on many elements, but the focus often falls on technology. But, it’s really — much like picking the best squad for the Lions — a question of building the right team. 

Here, outsourcing or teaming with other organizations can be a valuable strategy to bring together the right mix of skills and resources, according to Angus Roxburgh from the EY Global Digital Strategy team, and a key consultant in EY’s digital work with the British & Irish Lions. “Sourcing blended teams, as we have with The Lions, demonstrates how valuable it is to use what you have — while leveraging the capabilities and experience outside your own team,” he says. 

Organizations that go it alone have to learn and relearn often complex skill sets. Partnering and strategically outsourcing to create a blended team means an organization can access highly technical, complex and experienced resources much faster than trying to scale up by themselves, accelerating their development and transformation.

“Organizations often make the mistake of looking at the superficial cost of an external partnership without fully considering the many costs of going it alone,” warns Roxburgh. “These costs include longer time to learn a skill, mistakes, opportunity, costs of time, the cost of delivering a lesser capability and so on,” he says.

Challenge 2: Finding the right data

The billion-dollar question is what data do you use, and how do you develop the right KPIs for that? This is what EY needed to consider when helping the British & Irish Lions to improve digital engagement with their fans through the development of the 2017 Tour’s official app.

But, with a four-year gap since the last tour, data on the Lions’ database subscribers was limited.

As EY’s focus was primarily on digital engagement, a core project was collecting data on how fans moved across the various existing Lions’ digital properties. From this, the app development team explored how to convert fans into more engaged app users — and buyers of Lions merchandize to support the team on tour. This in turn unlocked information on merchandizing, tour packages and how many Lions sites app users visited. 

EY also ran a series of workshops with the Lions looking at its understanding of its fan base, the available data and over 30 other sporting apps.

By developing audience personas based on these insights, EY was able to focus on the Lions’ key user groups and to identify what different types of Lions fans and followers really needed. 

In today’s fast-paced world, the stream of new data is like water from a fire hose. To keep up with shifting fan opinions and needs, the EY social media team has also been measuring fan responses to events such as the appointment of Warren Gatland as head coach. They also set up a weekly tracking of fan comments, sentiment and activity.

This monitoring will run until the end of the Tour, providing fresh insights to help the Lions shift social media and other fan engagement activities to make a great experience for the fans.

Challenge 3: Extracting insight from the fire hose of data

The biggest challenge is deciding from a sheer volume of data, what to collect and how to use it. “Even with the development of personas, data analytics and experience in app and digital design, ultimately, digital assets are created based on a design hypothesis or approach,” says Roxburgh.

This hypothesis needs constant testing — not just as the initial asset is developed, but throughout the operation of that asset. The hypothesis might be inaccurate or data might change as customers (or fans, in the case of the Lions) change their opinions. This is why “an ongoing test-and-learn approach is critical for driving results,” Roxburgh says.

Lang predicts that sport will increasingly also follow these digital trends. “We’ll see the development of algorithms to identify what each individual player needs to do to improve their performance, skill levels and fitness,” he says. That, in turn, will feed into personalized training programs and diets, further optimizing the sportspeople of the future.

But for now, it is still the human characteristics: leadership, ability and the alchemy of teamwork that will carry digital transformation and the Lions over the line.

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