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TSG 1899 Hoffenheim is a Bundesliga football club that has made a 17-year journey from Germany’s fifth division. Think Sutton United becoming Arsenal.
That rise cannot be wholly attributed to SAP’s sponsorship of the club, nor indeed the club’s increasingly intensive use of data analytics, underlying which is the software supplier’s Hana in-memory columnar database.
Dietmar Hopp was one of the founders of SAP, and has been a financial backer of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim since 2000. The village of Hoffenheim itself is home to 3,300 souls, and its football team makes its Champions League debut this season. It is pitted against Liverpool for a place in the group stages of the tournament.
Jan Mayer, sports psychologist at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, recounts that shortly after he arrived at the club, nine years ago, he was asked if he could make the players “faster in the head”. At first, this was a bewildering request.
But it turned out to be doable, using computer-based training “for optimising speed of action”. During the course of a presentation to journalists visiting the Hoffenheim training facility, Mayer referred to a FIFA post-2014 World Cup report. This report said that compared with the 1966 World Cup, players today are 35% better at targeted passing and quickness. They have better decision-making skills, and “the game itself is broken down into short, highly intensive phases”.
Mayer also highlighted that the German national side had reduced its average ball contact time from 2.9 seconds in 2006 to 0.9 seconds in 2014. Germany finished in third place in 2006, on its own soil, and won in 2014, in Brazil, partly thanks to SAP’s data analytics support.
In his work with the Hoffenheim players, Mayer has drawn on a distinction, developed by Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman, between slow and fast subconscious thinking, where the latter is about automatic actions.
“A lot of things on the field are subconscious for the players, but there are also conscious things that are more tactical,” he said. “We want to improve fast thinking and make as much as possible automatic. But slow, conscious, logical thinking is important, and we call these ‘executive functions’ that top soccer players do well.”
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So Mayer and his team have developed, with SAP, ways to make “slow thinking” faster using software applications. One is a 180-degree “Helix” environment, where a player stands in the middle of it and is presented with avatar players on a screen, representing their own team and opponents.
As one example of its use, the players on-screen can change position, and the observing player has to track them. This improves positional awareness and enhances peripheral vision. “Video gaming, it turns out, is good for improving executive functions, parents might be sad to hear,” says Mayer.
Hoffenheim is using Hana, with SAP-developed dashboards, to analyse the video data it gets from the “Helix” and other training environments, which are used at all levels of the club, and is a customer of the supplier’s Sports One package that covers team management, training planning, player fitness and scouting.
Sports and SAP
Why does SAP get involved with football teams such as Hoffenheim – apart from Hopp having played for the club in his youth? The supplier has also engaged, with fanfare, with Bayern Munich and, in England, Manchester City.
Marcus Ruebsam, senior vice-president head of strategy and solution management for SAP Hybris – which is the customer engagement suite that clubs can use for tailoring the fan experience – says it is partly about the clubs as retailers, but also about sports performance.
“We first got involved in this a few years back with the National [North American ice] Hockey League,” he says. “The call to action for the fans [it discovered] was statistics on the players. This is something we in European sports are not so interested in, but in the US we have used the bringing of the statistics to cross and upsell.”
SAP also has National Hockey League clubs such as the San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks as customers. “They take it a step further, and we help them connect to the individual fan in the stadium,” says Ruebsam. The Sharks also message out to firms in Silicon Valley, targeting them for corporate seats, and events.
Ruebsam says machine learning will come more into play with football clubs. “The individual on the seat could be a fan of the player who scores a goal, while other fans care less. They want to become more sophisticated so their use cases scream for machine learning. And that is good for our developers, too.”
For SAP employees, working at clubs engages their passions, says Ruebsam. “They go to, say, Bayern Munich, where the club is a heavy user of our commerce and marketing engine. This is the exciting difference between a brand and sports team – it’s more emotional, it’s a different relationship.”