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On the ball: Squawka is bringing football into the 21st century

Written by Ryan McChrystal on Tuesday, 03 February 2015. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

With data visualisations and real-time analysis, the football app is making the beautiful game even more beautiful

On the ball: Squawka is bringing football into the 21st century

No one can deny the dazzling speed and agility of Lionel Messi or the exceptional grace and shooting prowess of Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. Football fan or not, watching these guys play you know they are among the best in the world. Which one is the better player overall is up for debate so it’s a good thing fans love nothing more than an argument. This is why Sanjit Atwal and Leo Harrison set up the next-generation media company Squawka. “We give fans the power to win arguments,” says Atwal. 

Squawka is a digital football companion. Its technology visualises over 500 million data points during a 90-minute football match. It then uses the results to create content to engage the audience, giving fans easy access to more information than they’ve ever had before.

True to form for a business centred around football, it all started over a few beers. Back in 2012, after Harrison sold his shares in Found.co.uk – a marketing company he founded in 2010 – he met with Atwal to discuss what the two could get up to next. Both being huge football fans, they had been toying with the idea of doing something in the sport for some time. Atwal had been in digital media, technology and start-ups for a while, and has his fair share of industry awards under his belt. When the time came to take the plunge, Atwal sold his car and his home and together with the money raised by Harrison through Found.co.uk, Squawka was born. 

Twitter was a big influence on the name. “We love the onomatopoeia of Twitter and ‘tweeting’ so we thought Squawka and ‘squawking’”, explains Atwal. “We also wanted a name which would give us room to grow vertically down the line, or horizontally if we wanted to branch into other sports.” 

So with a name and an idea, the first real challenge came of how to differentiate when there are a million and one other places fans can go online to get football content. “That’s where the data side really started to come in,” says Atwal. “We’re generating all these graphics and visualisation which we can put into editorial content as well. We can talk about football from a media point of view in a very unique way.” Squawka now now produces 150 unique articles on football a day in-house, and nearly all of them are statistic focused. Behind this prolific output is a 35-strong team, almost half of which focus on content. The company is looking into launching user-generated content in the future.

Sky Sports and the BBC have begun taking note of this trend in sports and have begun to incorporate increasing amounts of data into their broadcasts. “While their statistics might be useful to represent some of the general trends involved, they are not particularly nimble nor do they account for any inconsistencies or statistical deviations. This is the point where Squawka comes in. What the next generation of football enthusiasts needs is a system of analytics that more accurately describes what it sees in games,” explains Atwal.

This spearheading is the reason why Squawka is proving so popular and goes a long way to explaining why it cleared up at this year’s Smarta awards, winning best use of tech for its ‘championing innovation in football data and content’ and becoming overall winner. “The team can now walk into the meeting room and see all the awards that we have up there; there are quite a few now and they are a constant reminder that we’ve got an incredible business here. It’s a real morale booster,” says Atwal.

The many wins are well deserved. Squawka’s target audience are football fans between 18 and 35 and of this demographic, 31% have heard of the platform; a significant proportion still use it on a regular basis. It recently hit its record of 710,000 unique users in one day. Not bad for a company which has spent no money on advertising. “Looking at the growth of the business and how many fans are using Squawka it’s definitely something that everybody is thinking now: that actually you get much more enjoyment out of the game by understanding it through data visualisation,” Atwal says.

We are a nation of football fans. In the digital age, we are also a nation of people who want information boiled down into easily digestible chunks and we want it now. Statistics help us with these impulses and if they are attractively presented, all the better. “I think it is that realisation from fans that this kind of info was out there and it wasn’t geeky to be into this kind of stuff,” says Atwal. 

However, some football fans aren’t quite convinced. “When we launched there was a lot of good feedback but we also saw some fans rallying against the idea of more data,” says Atwal. Some think statistics and data rob the game of its romance and misses the point of the game. But for Atwal, data visualisations add to football. “We felt, as football fans ourselves, that there just wasn’t enough information to really understand the match at a deeper level,” he adds.

“The fact is, data helps make the game more beautiful,” says Atwal. “There’s a very famous quote from Sir Isaac Newton. By looking into the science behind a rainbow, the poet Keats said Newton was destroying the beauty by wanting to know too much. Newton’s reply was to say that by understanding the rainbow it makes it more beautiful – and the same holds true for football and data visualisation.” 

One of the most popular features on Squawka is the Comparison Matrix, where you can compare numerous stats of any player; everything from tackles won to red cards. If you were looking to settle the Ronaldo v Messi debate, you will find that overall Messi is the better player, as he has scored more goals and is better at forward passing. Ronaldo however, has the much more effective right foot. “When fans started sharing statistics with each other, it really affirmed to them that this is cool. Their desire to consume that is insatiable and there’s no signs of slowing down at all. The more content we’re pumping out, the more people want to consume,” says Atwal.

As the love of sports becomes democratised, the ways in which we view sports has changed. And so the popularity of fantasy sports – a particularly American pastime – is on the rise in the UK. In June last year Squawka entered the $70bn fantasy sport market with the launch of its Battle Mode. “This again focused on real-time data visualisations. We wanted to build a game where fans could challenge each other using all of the data coming from the football matches.” 

Later this year Squawka will launch a paid-for version of the fantasy product, where fans pay £3 to enter with a minimum of £25,000 up for grabs at the weekend.

Similarly, Squawka also released a game called Passelona where fans guess the five players that will pass the ball the furthest. “We visualise all the passes and have a real time leaderboard. We’re still running the product at the moment and 15% of the people who play it play five times in a weekend – which is genuinely phenomenal.”

As Squawka is a completely free service to fans, it makes its money through advertisements. Even in this area, it is a pioneer. “We have a host of really cool ad solutions that are on offer to brands and media agencies. We won a lot of awards for our Dominoes Pizza ads, where 15 minutes into every match we’d change all the advertising on Squawka to say: “Hey, here’s your discount code for your pizza. If you order it now you’ll have it at half-time.” That absolutely flew, we sold a ton of pizzas and the client was really happy,” says Atwal.

So what does the future hold for Squawka? “We want to get to the point where we’re the largest digital platform for football fans in the world,” says Atwal. “We’ve got a lot of different content ideas such as the more Vice media and Buzzfeed-type content. The fantasy side of the business will be a huge revenue driver for us over the next two to three years and we’re in a perfect position to be the next Sky Sports.”

There are also plans to branch into more languages, as it currently only operates in English. Not that this has stunted its popularity in almost every nation on earth in its short life.

So, for the 69% of football fans aged between 18-35 that still haven’t heard of Squawka: watch this space. 

About the Author

Ryan McChrystal

Ryan McChrystal

In a previous life McChrystal wrote about asset management in the Middle East. A history and politics graduate from the north of Ireland, he now focuses his efforts a little closer to home. 

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