The Numbers Game
Tony Khan, Analytics, and Fulham Football Club
After listening to this interview with Tony Khan (link above), two things became very evident to me: one, no matter what you may think of him or his father or their ownership of Fulham Football Club, Tony Khan seems like a very friendly, personable fellow; and two, he believes deeply in statistics and analytics and how they can improve a team and its performance.
Regarding the podcast, if you're expecting grueling, in-your-face questions by the interviewer, Jonah Keri, you'll be disappointed: by joint admission, Khan and Keri are good friends and have been for years. You’ll find that the tone of this interview is more like two buddies chatting about sports over a pint in their local pub.
The podcast was released a week or two ago, but it was recorded last December, so it's a little dated. It’s about 70 minutes long, and well worth a listen if you can spare the time. But if you’d rather jump directly to the discussion of Fulham, skip to minute 48. Lastly, it should be noted that the host, Jonah Keri, is a Fulham fan, and was one of the faithful even before Shahid Khan purchased the club. I give him bonus points for that.
Like so many of us, when Tony Khan was younger he had a passion for sports, but found he was lacking in two major areas - size and speed. In my case, I’d throw in a lack of talent as well. So instead of playing basketball in high school like he hoped, he ended up helping coach the team and keeping track of stats. When he went to college, he didn’t have time to be as involved, but kept up with the sporting world as much as he could.
Then in 2008, big things started happening: his father began talking about buying a professional sports franchise. The elder Khan’s first attempt was purchasing the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. The deal was two years in the making, but in the end the attempt faltered and died when the minority owner exercised his rights and bought the team instead. Shahid Khan was down, but not out. Self-made billionaires rarely are.
In 2012, the elder Khan finally realized his dream and purchased the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. At the time the Jags had no inside analytics group, so Tony Khan moved to Jacksonville and started the fledgling department. He's proud to see how football analytics have grown throughout the NFL, with teams like the Ravens and the Browns adopting the practice. He’s also proud of the fact that sometimes analytics have taken front and center, for example causing the Jaguars to reconsider a player when their internal analysis differed from the player’s stated ranking in the draft.
What I found very interesting, and where I see some confluence with Fulham, is how Shahid Khan has worked with the Jaguars since his purchase. Tony Khan stated that they’ve made great strides in improving the facilities in Jacksonville. They now have first class training facilities, the best locker rooms in the league, and some of the largest and most expensive video boards of any stadium. Shahid Khan has made it a priority that the fans have an excellent game-day experience. He appears to embrace a Field of Dreams mentality, something along the lines of “build it, and they will come.” This pertains not just to the fans, but to potential players as well.
That coincides with what is going on at Fulham, i.e., the announcement of Heatherwick Studio being commissioned to contribute its expertise and flair to the redevelopment of the Riverside Stand. The press release announcing this states that it will “...enable Mr. Khan to fulfill his aspiration of creating an iconic landmark on the banks of the River Thames.” The club has also committed to invest in Bishop’s Park, although I’m unaware of what those improvements will entail. Some have questioned the sincerity of the announcement of Heatherwick Studio and their involvement, seeing it as a delaying tactic of some sort. But based on his track record at Jacksonville, I’m inclined to take Shahid Khan at face value for now. Mirroring his father’s apparent intentions, in the podcast Tony Khan states, “The Club is trying to improve the facilities and strike a balance without damaging the classic nature of it.” Time will tell, but I'm trying to stay positive.
As for Fulham itself, Tony Khan readily admits that as “cool” as the Riverside development is, it’s the on-field product where they really need to make improvements (and remember - he stated this back in December, when our standing in the table was much higher). His biggest eye-opener is that soccer is a less stats-friendly game than baseball or American football. But in dealing with the nature of the game and trying to quantify the contributions, he believes it will be easier to quantify skill and contribution - but it will be harder to explain how they quantify skill and contribution. If that sounds a bit “fuzzy” to you, it did to me, too, but I'm far from a "numbers guy" and need a calculator just figure a tip. He does admit that trying to integrate all this into matches and onto the pitch, and acquiring the best personnel, has been a challenge so far. Throughout all this, Tony Khan insists that he wants to see the Club innovate and continue to get results, even though they haven’t played as well as he’d like. I doubt he would get an argument from any fans on that last point.
To highlight this, he gives an example: the team acquired an inexpensive player who was brought into the Club from a smaller European league. This player shouldn’t have been on Fulham’s radar at all, and the fans’ reaction to him was less than positive. But in the end he performed well and has made positive contributions. Tony Khan is hoping that, with examples such as this, people are beginning to see the value that analytics can play in modern soccer. He never names the player, but my first guess was Michael Madl. Then I remembered that this podcast was recorded in December of 2015, and the Austrian hadn’t joined the squad yet. I'm still not sure who he's referring to. I'm open to suggestions.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion of analytics and soccer is when the younger Khan digs deeper into the matter of the “heart and intelligence” inherent in top-shelf players. Tony Khan admits that in the last year he’s dealt with significant negativity surrounding the ability of analytics to measure heart and intelligence within the game. He agrees that it’s difficult to quantify the value of those attributes, yet he understands that they do contribute to wins and losses. Is he able to quantify those attributes yet? According to him, no – but he is striving to have more success with it in future transfer windows. Let's hope so. Soon.
And now comes the most intriguing twist, in my opinion. Here we are at the end of a very disappointing season, and the beginning of what will likely be a massive overhaul of the team. Tony Khan confessed that Slavisa Jokanovic is not the biggest fan of analytics, so it’s up to Khan to prove the value of it, not only to us, but to the new coach as well. But that begs the question: how much pull will Slavisa ultimately have on player selection? How much influence will he be able to exert if his desires butt heads with the slide rules and white boards in the analytics department? How does Rigg fit into all this? Who will come out on top in the end? My fingers are crossed - but in my limited experience with family versus the hired help, family generally holds the winning hand, so we'll see.
Tony Khan does leave us with some hope: he admits that he’d rather have a great coach who doesn’t believe in analytics than a bad coach who does. How this bodes for Slavisa is yet to be determined, and only time – and our place in the table and hopes of promotion – will tell.
Am I optimistic? Yes – because I don’t have a choice. We’re Fulham fans, and sometimes blind optimism is the only thing keeping us going game after game. Tony Khan has publicly stated that Fulham is a great club and has great fans, and the fans deserve better.
That, at least, is something we can all agree on.
Now it’s down to hope, prayer, and the numbers.