St George’s Park Launches FA Bid For Sports Tech Leadership

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Every aspect of football needs technology, says the FA’s Rob Ray

The Football Association (FA) has ambitious plans to establish itself as a world in leader in the application of sports technology and believes that its plan will eventually translate to success for the English national football team.

Rob Ray, Chief Information Officer at the FA, told TechWeekEurope that technology was involved with “every aspect of football” and that the centrepiece of its strategy are the analysis tools and learning environment created at the new National Football Centre at St George’s Park.

Set in 330 acres of Staffordshire countryside, the new £110 million centre houses 11 outdoor pitches, one full-sized indoor “3G pitch” –  made from the third generation of artificial turf as well as an indoor sports hall and state of the art rehab and sport science facility.

Getting it right

Rob Ray CIO FASt George’s Park  is home to England’s 24 national teams (all age groups, men and women’s teams, and disabled teams) but is also where coaches will be instructed how to implement the FA’s future game plan to teach the next generation of footballers and technology will be a crucial part of that blueprint.

“You’ve got to start with a good core infrastructure,” explained Ray. “You need to make it simple so that you don’t see the technology. You only see the technology when it’s gone wrong.” A bit like a referee perhaps?

“We’re the FA. We’re the third most written about organisation in the country. There are an awful lot of people who would pick us up on our failures, so there is a lot of focus on making this as perfect as we can,” he continued. “We are in a 330 acre field in the middle of the countryside but we have significant bandwidth coming into the building. We can’t dig the road up again to put in more bandwidth so you have to make sure that the foundation components that BT has helped us with are in place.”

Campus-wide Wi-Fi means that FA staff can get onto the FA network and access services such as video analysis and video development, while pitch side wireless points mean that coaches can use it will holding training sessions. This is then stored online and can be viewed in the dressing room or later on a computer or tablet.

“If you’ve got a group of 18 or 19 year olds who have just been training on a pitch for an hour, they’re not going to sit through a big lecture on what they’ve just done – You’ve got 10-15 minutes to get your point across,” said Ray. “To have the infrastructure and services in place that allow them to sit in their room later on and actually have to look at that content on their iPad or laptop, we need a secure network.”

Coaching the coaches

St Georges Park 11Ray admitted that some coaches see the technology as an imposition, which is why it was so important to make sure that it worked and to get it right first time.

“It just had to work or people would get put off things,” he said. “If you’re a coach and this is not your forte, you will move on.”

“What we’ve got to do is provide a range of technologies that works for each individual,” he said. “We’re working on a solution to deliver coaching content on a weekly basis. It can be delivered to an iPhone or iPad, but you’ve also got to accommodate someone who wants to print it out and put it on a clipboard. We’ve got to make it accessible in different ways. Touchscreen technology is one way but it’s a challenge.”

Ray said that his team travelled the world to see what they could bring to St George’s Park, but that the FA hopes to eventually become a world leader in sports technology.

“This is a centre of learning and a centre of excellence. Hopefully we’re going to lead some of the thought process on it as well, rather than just consume what other people have created,” he said. “I think we’re up there and I would expect that because St George’s Park is newer, we’re actually ahead. But what we have to do is to continue to work to stay ahead.”

FA a world leader

St Georges Park 5Ray has been in his role for just under three years, but has said that the technology has changed quite rapidly during that period, especially with regards to how data is analysed and how it can simplify the administration of the sport.

“My team provide 70-odd websites, one for every county association, plus Wembley and FA.com, through to managing an infrastructure that goes through to 60 locations around the country,” said Ray. “We run Wembley Stadium, which we believe is the most technically advanced stadium in Europe. You can’t get in our building without using our network in some way or another.”

A new league system has saved 900 hours of volunteers’ time since it has been implemented while the FA process anywhere between 450,000 and 600,000 yellow and red cards every season.

“That all has to be managed in an effective way. That’s all going online,” said Ray. “. There were systems before, but now we’re actually putting some of the administration back into the hands of the participants and allowing the FA to work on things like developing the game, supporting the clubs and leagues in challenging times.”

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