The man making sport smarter

Ramm Mylvaganam

Fans can wax lyrical about their teams’ statistics, records and players and there’s no shortage of data on sport.

However, for one Leeds man he’s spent the last twenty years looking to make sport smarter.

Ramm Mylvaganam, describes his journey into the world of sports data as an accident having been working for confectionary giant Mars before hitting what he describes as a glass ceiling and moving into the world of consultancy.

The year was 1998 and Mylvaganam describes it as the birth of sports data revolution.

He explains: “I’d left Mars and moved into a consultancy, and I found myself talking to Jim Smith and Steve McClaren about Derby County as they’d just been promoted to the Premier League and wanted to find a way of staying there. So, I asked them, ‘how do you monitor the performance of your players?’ And Jim just turned to me, smiled and said, ‘I know who’s good, bad and ugly so I don’t need to do stuff like that’.

“McClaren then popped up and said Ramm what do you have in mind. At that point I explained ‘in business we focus on understanding people and how people work because if you don’t know what you’ve got and how they function you can’t decide how to train them’.”

It was this simple conversation that led to the self-described “chocolate salesman gone wrong” giving a business lesson to a future England manager and the creation of ProZone – a business subsequently credited with helping Manchester United win the treble in 1999 and England Rugby win the world cup in 2003.

“I felt the only way [football clubs] were going to pick up this data was to tag players on the field of play and convert them into job descriptions. At this point you know what you expect the player to do and can train them to do it’

He describes the journey from starting the company to his exit after a decade as fantastic and believes it resulted in the subsequent “tsunami of data assimilation protocols in sports”. The firm is still in operation now under Chicago firm StatPerform and is used by every club.

You might think that after the success of ProZone, Mylvaganam would be content with his contribution to the world of sports data and analysis. However, in 2010 he again set out to transform sports data.

Teaming with some former ProZone team members he explains how he supported them to create ApolloV2 a software platform that would address player fitness for purpose, using analysis of medical, rehab, training, game and screening data. The business has since gone on to find success in America with the NBA, NFL, MLB and MLS. Mylvaganam still remains on the board of Apollo but at the end of 2020 decided after over two decades of disrupting sports businesses with data to bring together the latest AI and machine learning technology with the “tsunami of information” he started.

So, it is that we are sat on a Zoom call talking football and his latest venture Ai Abacus. The software which is described as offering “Predictive Talent Insight” and offering teams the ability to make smarter decisions in both the transfer market and on the pitch.

Speaking to Mylvaganam it’s clear that he feels this is the culmination of the journey which started with the aforementioned conversation with Smith and McClaren.

As he provides a tour of the system it’s clear that not only does it compute vast quantities of data but part of its majesty is to turn it into something visual and easily digestible.

He explains that data and analytical prowess has often been limited to the very highest levels of team sports, with Liverpool FC famously having invested heavily in the area. However, through Ai Abacus, “we want to democratise the analytical process and make it available to all professional clubs through a software as a service (SaaS) model”, he adds.

This model of SaaS he explains means that clubs from all tiers of football can gain access to the data and use it to shape their own decisions in order to help them tackle the challenges which many facing in the wake of Covid-19.

“The last 12 months has thrown up plenty of challenges for football clubs”, he continues, “and unless they find a pragmatic way of seeing what gems [in the form of players] they’ve got and where they can get real value from them, they may face further difficulties.”

It’s this focus on data analysis for the masses which means that the system is currently being trialled by clubs in both the Premier League such as Crystal Palace and by those in lower tiers like National League team Hartlepool United.

Mylvaganam however emphasises the software does not provide the answers on who to recruit but allows decision makers to assess half a billion data points on players going back seasons or even their entire career and using the latest AI and machine learning tools see how the player could fit into the current squad.

“For some clubs the software at its basic package costs £500 per month, which provides access to a data lake of 140,000 players. What we want to do is provide the interface that enables you to make a decision, but we don’t want to be prescriptive and don’t want to tell you who you should recruit or who to substitute when, because we want you to make those decisions. If we could tell you how to do all those things we’d expect to be paid more than £500 pounds a month.”

His passion for both the product and the science is fantastic as he explains the team brings together expertise from both academia such as the University of Southampton where Professor Gopal Ramchurn has been leading research into various areas of machine learning, AI and game theory, research which helped inspire Ai Abacus. As well as

people who have spent their career in leading roles in the football and sports ecosystems, such as Stewart Regan who was CEO of the Scottish FA as well as holding consultant roles to both FIFA and UEFA.

So is Mylvaganam once again creating new data analytical framework that will transform the sports industry, as he did with ProZone 20 years ago.

“I think what was available has always been available – the data, but what hasn’t been there has been the ability to understand and make sense of it. That’s what Ai Abacus does and that’s our IP, giving the user the ability to interrogate the data in a way you’ve never done before.”

And interrogate feels the right word, the platform enables users to Search, Profile and Benchmark players against those in the same position in the league, in the country or even the world. But more than that it provides a snapshot at the potential Chemistry, Suitability and Tactical Fit of a player for a team. It can even go as far as offering predictive assessments of the key performance indicators which either substantiates or provides credible alternative to the judgements of football professionals

So what is the commercial opportunity when at its most basic it costs £500 a month? Mylvaganam explains for larger clubs the fees can increase allowing users access to more support such as customised data inputs, detailed reports that tie into their recruitment or player development strategies and customised analysis that is conducted alongside decision makers at clubs, federations and player agencies.

So having launched five months ago and with circa 40 clubs already trialling and using the software what’s next?

Mylvaganam smiles at the question, “convert it into pound signs” he says before explaining the company is now looking for investment to support its growth. It has already been selected to be part of Qatar Sports Tech – a leading global accelerator for sports technology companies and beat 200 other businesses to get the opportunity.

Aside from that the company is also working closely with Mexican Football Federation and others. It’s long term ambition Mylvaganam explains is to translate what it can do in football, into other sports particularly within the US market which is predicted to be worth $83.1bn in2023.

So as the call comes to an end I ask, having launched the sports data revolution with ProZone in the 90s and now creating Leeds’s latest sports-data analysis company, Ai Abacus, what does he think is the secret to Yorkshire city’s success in this industry?

The answer, he smiles: “It all started here, in Harehills with ProZone and some smart young Sports Data Analysts disrupting the market in 1998 .”

It’s clear that Mylvaganam is both a passionate sports fan but also a data evangelist and he has managed to combine the current convergence of technology and data which has the power to transform businesses with his love of sport to create a new exciting venture that looks set to take the world by storm!

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