This sporting IT life

Feature

This sporting IT life

International sport can offer the IT professional a unique opportunity to work in a field they feel passionately about. Lindsay Nicolle looks behind the glamour at the working lives of IT directors in five big sports

What a week this is for sports enthusiasts with Wimbledon and the Euro 2004 finals, and the British Grand Prix is scheduled for next Sunday. But for all the pride and passion, sport of all kinds is now big business - and like all business, every sport needs effective IT to be a winner. Sport offers career opportunities to the IT professional which can combine the glamour of mass entertainment with innovative IT projects.

So how do you make your mark in sports IT? First, if you want to make your sporting passion your work, you will need strong business, interpersonal and marketing skills as well as technical knowledge to stay the course. The penalties are huge if IT goes wrong, but get it right and you will be well rewarded for a job you love.

Mark McMurrugh is IT project director for IBM at Wimbledon, as well as an accomplished amateur at real tennis, the ancient but freshly fashionable version of the game beloved of the likes of Henry VIII.

"Working in an area you have a passion for makes the job a whole lot easier and more enjoyable," he says.

Typically, McMurrugh spends his days directing a 180-strong team which prepares and tests the IT systems that support Wimbledon - the main ones being the scoring and match statistics systems, networking, running the website and managing the many integrated data feeds.

When the championship nears, McMurrugh decamps from his home in Hayling Island, Hampshire, and stays close to Wimbledon, working 12-plus hour days. "It is a glamourous job, but last year the only set of tennis I caught at Wimbledon was the first set of the men's final," he says. "It can be frustrating, but you are living and breathing the event even when you are busy behind the scenes."

Aside from Wimbledon, McMurrugh travels around the world to other annual grand slam tennis championships held in Melbourne, Paris and New York, exchanging information on IT system innovations with other IT directors at these events. "IT directors in sport have the same challenges that IT directors in other areas would have - which technology to buy, budgets, cost-effectiveness - but something we don't suffer from is low morale," he says. "There are 20,000 IBM-ers who would give their eye teeth to work at Wimbledon, so my team give it their all."

McMurrugh's tenure at Wimbledon ends this year when he is off to pursue another sporting passion: motor sport, where he will be working on an automotive IT project for DaimlerChrysler.

The pole position on IT in motor sport has already been snapped up by Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn. The envy of every Italian male, Manchester-born Brawn co-ordinates the development of the Ferrari Formula One car, currently leading in the Constructors Championship, which lionises the makers, rather than the drivers, in terms of their Grand Prix performance.

Brawn is an engineer and aerodynamicist and as such is a major user of IT. He relies totally on IT to design Ferrari's cars and simulate the extreme conditions they face, working closely with Ferrari's technological partners, AMD and Acer.

"It is hard to find a downside to a job such as mine," he says. "As I am a motor racing fan, working for Ferrari is a dream. Obviously you have to be fully committed to your job with all the inevitable consequences for your private life. We had to move to Italy, where there is an incredible passion for this team.

"Ferrari is not just a racing team, it is a national emblem. Sometimes Italian passion puts me under a lot of pressure, but it is always very stimulating, and when you see the sea of red flags in the circuits we race in - and we win - it's a great feeling."

Mark Lichtenhein leads a hectic life travelling the world and typically working a six-day week. As director of IT and new media for the Ryder Cup organiser, the Professional Golfers' Associations European Tour - a schedule that embraces South Africa, Australasia and Asia - Lichtenhein is always on call.

Lichtenhein (handicap 9) is a hybrid IT person, being both a technical and sports marketing professional who speaks five languages. As well as running the website, www.europeantour.com with a team of 10 staff, he is also responsible for relationships with technology sponsors.

Lichtenhein came to the attention of the European Tour after setting up the GolfWeb internet channel and he has streamlined its IT operation since joining his post. The latest initiatives include installing a satellite broadband link at each event to bypass the vagaries of national telcos. He has also deployed a Wi-Fi network on courses to dramatically speed up the feedback of scores and send data to the website and worldwide television networks.

"The time-critical nature of my business is very demanding," says Lichtenhein. "Players tee off at 7am and tournaments last five days. We have live scoring and the whole world wants to see it in real-time. The systems have to work under the full glare of the media and the sponsors, which keeps me on edge.

"But it is a real privilege to work in this environment instead of being in an office all day. I visit some great places, but it is not just a day out at the golf because I am working. It is more relaxing for me when I get invited to watch a cricket match."

Steve Jones used to regularly watch cricket at Lord's, the spiritual headquarters of the game, when he was IT manager at the National Gallery in London, but he never had any specific ambition to work there until he spotted a recruitment advertisement in Computer Weekly.

"I was on a train going home one evening when I saw the advert for a new head of IT at the MCC, and I thought 'that looks fun'," says Jones. Now 18 months into the job, he has no regrets. "It is a great place to work," he says. "I was able to watch the last hour of the England innings in the New Zealand test and saw Nassar Hussein make 100 to win in his last ever match - and I got paid for it. The worst part of the job is being here and not being able to watch every minute of the game."


Jones is based full-time at Lord's and has two staff to help him run typical business administration systems as well as the MCC's balloting system for tickets and the scoring system. He is busiest in the summer, supporting the five-day Test matches and one-day internationals. These are 12-hour days, starting at 6.30am when he ensures that the computer systems are working properly.

"It can be frustrating when I am stuck in the office and there is a great match going on and I can hear the roar from the ground," he says. "But at least I get a two-second warning when something has happened because it takes that long to appear on the television."

He adds, "I still get a buzz walking through the gates and the Long Room every morning. So much has happened here and I am part of it."

In contrast, Steve Elliott, head of IT at the Rugby Football Union in Twickenham - home of the England team - appreciates the venerable setting for his job but actually prefers soccer to "the ruffians' game".

As ex-head of IT at Virgin Records, Elliott faced a bit of a culture shock when he joined the Rugby Football Union, where decisions are taken cautiously by various committees. Consequently, the Union's IT systems are standard, although there are innovative projects under way for the national squads.

"We are moving some fairly significant applications onto Pocket PCs to help international players develop their game," he says cagily, so as not to help the opposition. Elliott also works with coaches to capture games on video and create special training CDs for players.

"The best aspect of the job for me is the diverse range of business processes we have," says Elliott. "I work very closely with the business. We run the IT for the shops, the ticketing system, a museum and conferencing and banqueting. The downside is that IT skills are not a priority when officials and coaches are recruited, so IT does not have a high-profile role in support of the game, even though it is an important part of it."

Elliott's busiest times are at weekends when the matches at 1,800 rugby clubs take place and the website is updated.

Perk-wise, Elliott enjoys tickets to international games and the use of an on-site fitness centre where the England players train.

"I will be here for another two years to see through all my objectives, but then I would like to move on to fresh challenges," he says. "I do not mind what sector as long as I have an interest in it."

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This was first published in July 2004

 

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