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You might have missed it with March Madness starting next week but soccer season in North America is officially underway with the 2017 MLS season kicking off last Friday night in Portland. This year the MLS features a pair of new expansion teams from Atlanta and Minnesota that both have their roots in the United Soccer League, the largest soccer league in North America with teams in 30 cities across the US and Canada. XLIVE sat down with USL’s president, Jake Edwards, for a wide ranging interview where we discussed his background in the sports industry and the innovative approaches that the USL is taking to offer data-driven content to their fans in 2017.

What were the main factors that inspired you to pursue a career in the sports industry?

I’ve been in football for basically my entire life going back to when I started playing at 6 years old. I had a 12 year professional playing career and have always been committed and passionate to the sport, I even met my wife by choosing a certain school because of their football program. As my playing days started to wind down, I began to spend more time learning the business side of the sport. The marketing side of the business was especially interesting to me and after retiring in my mid 30s I went to Warwick Business School in the UK. During business school I worked for the Octagon sports agency in London and stayed there for a number of years with a focus on the Middle East and Indian regions, primarily cricket and football. During my time at Octagon I was introduced to the owners of the USL and their Managing Partner and I was so impressed by his vision for the league that I accepted a job offer to become President of the USL. The league has come a long way since I started, there were only 11 clubs when I joined and now a few years later we are up to 31 teams and have over 50 people working in the office. Right now my main focus is on adding additional expansion teams and continuing to develop our partnership with Major League Soccer so that we can build on our goal of creating a true development system for football in the U.S. market.

How is your organization utilizing data & analytics as a means to more effectively engage and retain both fans and corporate partners throughout the course of a season?

It has certainly evolved from 2012/2013 where we had one person in charge of digital, social and analytics to 15 people across those areas today. The widespread use of data and analytics is happening for USL both on a league and club level. We have put together a digital network where we centralize the activities of all the teams from a website and content distribution standpoint. This allows us to utilize data and analytics to understand how fans are engaging with teams on their websites and social media pages. Having access to this information is vitally important so that we have a better sense for the types of questions that we need to be asking of ourselves and our teams. What posts do we need to boost? What are fans responding to and what isn’t catching their attention or encouraging engagement?

We also help teams monetize their websites through analytics, especially ticket sales or team merchandise. Repucom and Nielsen are valuable partners that we use to gain actionable insights and intelligence from our broadcast analytics on YouTube. We have a real push to analyze the on-field competition as well, the quality of players and the quality of the plays that take place during the game. We are also starting to spend more time and energy focusing on using analytics to judge the impact that domestic and international players are having on the league as well. On the broadcast side, we have partnership with Opta that enhances our broadcasts and provides data to our competitive committee as well so that we can provide reports to our teams so that they understand where they are excelling and where they can improve. USL Productions is taking control of the 500+ games that we have this year with Opta providing data and analytics to fans through the MatchCenter on our website. Fans can get the rich data they want while watching the games, everything from passes completed to save percentages.

The sports industry has been at the forefront of data & analytics for the past decade as people who were teenagers or college students during the “Moneyball” era are now working in the business, often in senior-level positions. How has this industry-wide data & analytics revolution impacted your organization’s ability to hire and develop talent in an increasingly competitive space within the sports landscape?

We’ve seen that for sure amongst our more junior employees but I’m a firm believer that in the sports industry you need to get in on the ground floor and get as much commercial experience as you can. Most people start in the sales side and work their way up. It used to be that you didn’t need MBA’s or certain graduate degrees to get into the industry but that has changed quite a bit. I’ve definitely have seen a shift for Millennials coming into the industry, they see the world and their jobs very differently. People are used to mobile devices and have them with at all times. Instant access and instant gratification are very important to Millennials so we are always trying to keep up with them. 80% of our team at USL is from that generation and they are critically important to the long term growth of our league.

There are certainly folks coming in here that are attracted to the sports industry with advanced degrees and we find ourselves skewing towards the Millennial talent coming into the industry. They get what we are trying to do and that’s critical. Whatever we used to do to be a successful business has to change with the times. We ask for very different qualifications when hiring then we used to. USL needs people who understand digital marketing and social media and come from diverse backgrounds. Most of all, we need people that understand how future generations are going to consume our sport. You have to be willing to adapt in this industry if you want to stand the test of time.

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