When Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer arrived in the GeekWire studios last Thursday — a few hours before the whole #DempseyWatch phenomenon took off on Twitter — he seemed pretty cool, calm and collected. There was no real sign that Hanauer, a Seattle kid who grew up going to Sounders matches, had just pulled off one of the biggest deals — some may say coups — in the 17-year history of Major League Soccer.
Two days after showing up on our radio show and podcast, Hanauer was standing at midfield of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of more than 30,000 screaming fans, placing a soccer scarf around the neck of U.S. Men’s National Team captain Clint Dempsey, one of the best American soccer players of all time.
Hanauer actually hinted that something “big” was in the works on the radio show, but we had no idea that a player of Dempsey’s caliber was actually attainable. Now, the attacking midfielder, who lit up the English Premier League last season, is going to be lacing up his boots for the Sounders.
And here’s the really cool thing. You can see him play — along with your friends at GeekWire. We just happen to be hosting our first-ever GeekWire Sounders Day tailgate party for the Wednesday, September 4th match, which could be Dempsey’s second appearance in front of the home-town crazies. We’ve got a special block of tickets on hold for the GeekWire faithful, and we’ll be partying before the match on the awesome rooftop deck of EMC/Isilon. (Go here for tickets and details).
Before all of this madness unfolded, we sat down with Hanauer to get his take on how technology is changing “the beautiful game” — everything from player tracking systems to goal line technology to social media.
Here are excerpts from the conversation, which you can listen to in its entirety here.
On the crossover between the Sounders and the tech community: “Seattle, generally, is a little countercultural. We like things that are a little bit off the grid, a little bit off the map that some of the rest of the country doesn’t support…. There are a lot of foreign people in technology, a lot of engineers from other countries. When I run into someone who has an accent, it is almost certain that their first love is football, or soccer.”
On whether we may see goal-line technology in professional soccer, helping referees determine if a ball has fully crossed the goal line: “I sit on the board of governors for our league, which is the owners of all of our franchises, and there’s a lot of talk about technology. And not just goal-line technology. But, to go back a step, the reason that no technology like this has existed is that FIFA — the world governing body of soccer — until recently they had boycotted or put the kabosh on any form of technology in the game that could potentially stop the game. Recently, FIFA changed their position on goal-line technology, so there are several companies that have been fighting for the lead in the execution and installation…. I think it is most likely that our league will wait, and let some of the big leagues lead in that area. And, I will be honest, one of the pure and simple reasons is that it is actually really expensive. And, the number of decisions that would be looked at and potentially overturned in a season are usually less than a handful. It may be two or three decisions per year that actually could use the goal-line technology. So, with our league, we are excited about pushing the envelope with other technologies, like replay and are there things that we can do to take it to the next level. Should red cards be reviewed? Penalty kicks?”
On getting better Wi-Fi in sports stadiums: “One of the big issues has been in-stadium, the ability for people to get a good signal and Wi-Fi, so we are working on that, first and foremost. We need the plumbing to work a little bit better. When stadiums were built, they didn’t anticipate needing this kind of bandwidth to get people live video, or video from seven different angles of cameras…. We’ve had to … get the blocking and tackling done before investing in some of the fun tools … like ordering food to your seat.”
On what technology he’d like to most see in the stadium: “I think we could do a lot more with technology, and we just hired a CTO not long ago, and he’s starting to ramp up the innovation. Assuming we’d have the plumbing, the blocking and tackling done, quite frankly our iPhone app, or app, probably could be a little bit better, and upgraded and do some new stuff with it. There’s lot of voting-type opportunities in game, whether it is man of the match or suggestions.”
On why he doesn’t have a Twitter account: “I’ve been tempted so many times (to join Twitter). But I am tempted, when it would be really bad if I Tweeted. I don’t want to put myself in a position where I am saying something stupid or getting combative with a fan or someone. It just seems like a no win for me…. Don’t get me wrong, if I were to use Twitter appropriately, I think it is a fantastic tool. It is great for the players, because they can build their image and their brand…. and the ones who manage it appropriately and properly do a great service…. I do live in fear to some degree when the PR guy calls “It’s like, oh God, what did they Tweet now?'”
On big data in sports: “It did really all kind of originate with Billy Beane and Moneyball. Interestingly enough, Billy Beane works for Oakland A’s, owned by Lew Wolff, who also owns the San Jose Earthquakes. So, Billy Beane became interested in soccer, and 6, 8, 10 years ago … he did actually start to work on some of these statistical issues for San Jose and out of personal interest. As we entered the league, we did decide that we were going to try to use data as well as possible. Now, you can spend enormous amount of resources trying to track things, and you can track the wrong things. So, I’d say we’ve waded in. We haven’t jumped in completely into this world.”
On why they use GPS units to collect data on players during training sessions: “In every training session, our players wear a … heart-rate monitor and GPS tracking unit, so it allows us to measure distance covered; numbers of sprints; what their pace speed is…. There is technology that we do get on the information from the games, but they are not allowed, again, back to FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, to wear any of those tracking devices of heart-rate monitors during a game…. So, we get all of this information, and how a player’s heart rate responds to those sprints, and how quickly their heart rate recovers, and from that, for instance, we are able to calculate a training load for each training day, which is an algorithm that we create that gets tweaked over time. It helps us to design the training session.”
On which player typically runs the most on a field during the game: “Generally, (Brad) Evans. The central midfielders, the demands of that position, generally lead to the massive distances covered. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the ones that sprint the most.”
On the Sounders as a startup enterprise: “We are kind of past that startup phase stage a little bit. I’ve started a lot of companies, and you just start to have sort of a gut feeling when something has gone from a startup to a slightly more mature stage. I guess maybe part of it is, in a startup, you’re always kind of worried that it is going to go down the tubes and not exist anymore. I am pretty comfortable with the fact that we’ve built a really good base and platform to even grow further from. But things jump in my mind: Are we still being innovative enough? Have we gotten a little bit lazy in this area? Are we still best of class in different areas? And just to give examples for me: For instance, sports science. Are we still doing things better than other teams in the league? Are there other teams in the league or the world that we need to be looking at to improve? Game day experience? From the first game here five years ago, it was just, the hair on the back of your neck stood up. It was just such an amazing atmosphere, and it is still fantastic. Are we still doing enough and pushing that? Our marketing. It was kind of edgy and funny and interesting to begin with, and are we still doing some of that stuff? And broadcast? Have we done anything innovative in broadcast.”
On running a profitable business: “We’ve run a very good business. We’ve made some money, not massive amounts of money. We were never in it to make money. We prefer not to lose money. Our revenue has been very good, but one of the reasons is that it has been good is that we’ve spent more than anybody else in our league in every area of our business.”