The rise of tech in football: Interview with WhoScored CEO and co-founder Cristiano Acconci

cristiano-acconci

Cristiano Acconci is the co-founder and CEO of WhoScored, one of the largest football statistics websites, covering all the major leagues in Europe and using data to analyze players and team.

In this interview, Cristiano talks about his international background from Hong Kong, Italy, and UK, the idea behind his business, the amazing experience he had by working with Antalyaspor, a Turkish professional football club located in the city of Antalya, and the privilege of being able to combine a strong passion with work. If you’re a football lover, prepare to be inspired!

Ciao Cristiano, it’s nice to have the opportunity to talk with you! Could you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to found WhoScored?

Well, my background is very international. I grew up in Hong Kong to an Italian father and Portuguese mother. I left Hong Kong for Rome in 2000, and after one year went to the UK for boarding school and university. I always loved watching and playing football, as did my very good friend Ali Ozturk, and we decided to create a football platform around 2008 that would have an abundance of football data and analysis to help bettors, fans and club staff – basically anyone with an interest in football.

How was the idea for WhoScored formed and how it has evolved over time?

The idea of WhoScored formed because there wasn’t a complete platform online like it around at the time. There were live score sites, news sites, preview sites etc, but none seemed to be global or detailed. Over time we learned to display complex data in a friendly way as well as give detailed data for users that wanted more.

What is your business model? How do you make money and who are typical clients and partners?

Our business model has been predominantly based on display advertising and sponsorships. Our main deals are mainly comprised of clients in the betting and fantasy sector in football. The nature of our content and player ratings, in particular, gets a lot of football clubs and players to interact and share on social media.

I remember that at least in the early years you were growing at a very fast pace. What’s the secret behind this? What sets you apart from competitors?

If a product is really good, it should grow fast with the right strategy. In the beginning stages, WhoScored already had live player ratings and a large stats database that was offered for free to the public. I really believed in creating unique content and investing in social media, which was a very new concept 5-10 years ago. I really felt the right way to approach social was to create our own style and message, which has a bit of a professional tone with an intelligent touch to it. Sticking to this, even to this date, has been important.

I believe WhoScored is a benchmark for football data sites. Of course there are competitors out there, but what sets up apart is that our brand is solid, trustworthy, and respected.

How it is to combine a strong passion (you never hide your love for Inter Milan!) and work?

With a strong passion, it sometimes feels like you aren’t working at all, just doing what you love. There are many stresses that come with running a company, there are people to look after and targets to achieve, but at the end of the day when you see your product appreciated by fans the hardship becomes worthwhile.

You have also been working with Antalyaspor in Turkey for a while, how was that experience? 

It was truly amazing. I met so many football players, agents and great people in the football industry during that time. The experience I gained was priceless. It was a pleasure to meet the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Samir Nasri, Leonardo, Jose Morias, and more. All I can say is that it is very hard to run a football club, and that the president is doing an amazing job at Antalyaspor.

Three years ago Manchester City was maybe the first top club to run a hackathon, with Bayer Munich, Chelsea and other clubs following. FC Barcelona also recently announced that it is seeking €100 million to create a startup investment fund. That’s something relatively new in football, but it seems that technology is really becoming more and more important.

Do you think this is an upward trend or just something temporary?  Is there the risk that too much tech will damage passion for it?

This will be an upward trend, especially for player transfers and scouting. There is still an untapped area of psychometric data, off the ball data, and more that are still not used. There probably will be a time when that trend will hit a plateau, but not too soon. We as humans adapt to everything in life. The video assistant referee (VAR) is still in its infancy, but in a few years it will feel totally normal. As data advances, we will get used to it as well. 

In the US, especially with other sports, we have seen growing interest around the Moneyball theory – do you see it as this is as a trend that is growing in Europe as well now?

You cannot sign a player on stats only without the traditional scouting. What stats do well is to highlight potential talent. All clubs are doing this to my knowledge in some form or another.

Another thing that is changing fast is women’s football. The Women’s World Cup is now is showing a much higher level of interest from the public. What’s your opinion on that? Any plans to add some women’s leagues on WhoScored?

Unfortunately we weren’t able to cover the Women’s World Cup this season due to a lot of work needed to change our database to receive these feeds, but we definitely will work on this in the future. I have been very impressed with the quality of women’s football, and even more so by the attraction to this world cup. It’s great for women’s football to be getting such good exposure. 

What does the future hold in store for you and WhoScored?

My main goal now is to expand WhoScored in terms of traffic, new products and entering new revenue streams. It’s going to be a great couple of years coming up for those that are working at WhoScored and our amazing users that visit the site.