Dan Altman Interview

Google ‘Dan Altman Swansea’ and you can see all kinds of speculation about when the former Harvard economist joined them, what his role was and who he helped the club sign. None of the words come from Altman himself, however.

We often get the clubs’ side of the story when things go bad or perhaps the musings of an outgoing manager who had ‘non-football people’ interfering in how he got to run the club with their use of numbers and spreadsheets.

We rarely get the story from the analyst themselves. I thought maybe it was time to change that, so I arranged to talk with Altman myself to find out what went on, and what the future now holds.


I’ve seen reports that you joined Swansea in September. Is that true?

I joined the ownership group on December 1st 2016. That’s when I became an advisor to Swansea, and I became an advisor to DC United on January 1st 2017.


What was your role?

When I work for a club, I spend about a third of my time on recruiting, a third of my time on tactical analysis, and a third of my time on long-term projects, forecasting, and planning.

Typically that means spending a lot of time with performance analysis staff and recruiting staff but also trying to do some strategic work for ownership and executives.


Was that the case at Swansea?

My role at Swansea was as an advisor, so I could advise about anything I wanted, but that doesn’t mean I had any power to make decisions or even to call a meeting!


Did you work remotely?

I went over there several times. But a trip to South Wales from New York, especially midweek, is not cheap, so there were some limits that I perceived. To be honest, someone who was based at the club or closer to the club might have had more success. But I always got a nice welcome when I went there.


Do you see the whole experience as a positive one for you?

It was absolutely a positive experience overall. I learned a lot about the business on the inside, and that’s why I took the position. I had opportunities with bigger clubs, but I thought I’d be much more removed from the management if I did that. I decided to work with Swansea and DC because I thought I’d learn about many more aspects of the business, and I did.

But after a year and a half or so I started to get frustrated, because I thought I was offering good ideas for the decisions made at the club and also the structure of the club itself, and those ideas were just never being implemented. I told my wife I was going to leave when the work for the January window had ended, but in the end I left even before that.


Do you think the turnover in managers at the club contributed to ideas not being taken up or are we talking about getting decisions implemented at executive level?

I worked for several years as a strategic consultant before getting into football, and I have some ideas about how organisations ought to run and how decision making processes ought to look. I feel very strongly that even if you didn’t have an analyst at all, if you had a good decision making process, you’d probably make better decisions than a club with a great analyst and no process. That was one of the things I thought could improve at Swansea.

What kind of structure should be in place?

Any club should have regular meetings at middle management level for tactics and recruitment and regular, less frequent meetings about those things at a higher level. I think that decisions in that context can be consensus-based, where you are able to collect input from all the relevant parties and keep everybody informed about what’s going on.


To an outsider that just sounds like basic common sense?

It is!


If you look at the Sunderland documentary, they’ve told the scouts this is what we’re looking for and this is the budget and then the scouts are going away and looking at Ibrahimovic. Is this a common thing, this communication disconnect at clubs?

Some clubs definitely do it better than others. I remember a piece in the Daily Record that included a video on Hibernian and their recruiting process, and I just thought it was very straightforward and sensible. I didn’t see why other clubs shouldn’t follow more or less the same blueprint.


You say you’d usually spend a third of your time at a club on recruitment. What does that entail? What does it look like?

Well I think it’s important for clubs to have an integrated human and machine intelligence scouting platform, where you bring all those inputs together.

You can use data as an initial filter to identify players and then narrow that down with video analysis and human scouting. Or you can put them together simultaneously and design some sort of decision algorithm whereby you create a consensus. For example, Fulham had a ‘both boxes ticked’ strategy where they said, “If the data say yes, and the scouts say yes, then we say yes.”

You can structure it in different ways. I would typically look to create such a system, collect the inputs and try and gain consensus with the outputs.


Is this for specific positions or across all players?

I think that sort of process can work across all positions, though you’ll have different inputs. For example, for goalkeepers, Swansea at the time had Tony Roberts as the goalkeeping coach. He’s one of the most analytical goalkeeping people I’ve ever met. He has a lot of his own criteria that he looks for in goalkeepers, so the job of an analyst in working with someone like Tony is to save him as much time as possible by replacing tedious research processes with ones that could be automated. If you do that using data, you narrow down the sample of goalkeepers he should look at. Of course you might also want to do some testing on the criteria being used, but that’s a second step – probably once you’ve gained the trust of the people you’re working with.


Did you do any work on the training side or the physical data?

Swansea had an exceptional performance team, developed by Rich Buchanan, until Karl Halabi was appointed and took it in a different direction. Upon Paul Clement’s sacking and Rich’s reinstatement, the department had been stripped of many of its key staff members and thus much of its capability. Eventually Rich left as well. When I started at the club, all those senior people were there and capable of doing very advanced work. I look to advise on the use of data wherever I can, but those guys were all extremely professional.


How did you split your time between Swansea and DC United?

Both clubs contributed to my pay, so I split based on that. DC has a smaller technical staff, though arguably today it’s a more valuable club than Swansea. I would try to achieve some of the same things at a club regardless of its size. It really comes down to not just how you want to split your time, but what sort of take-up you are getting for your ideas.


Was it easier to get buy in at one club than at the other?

Well certainly stability at DC made things a bit easier, with the same coach and general manager in place the whole time I was there. DC had a couple of things happen that lent themselves more to the involvement of an advisor such as myself, like the search for the club’s designated player and bringing back probably the best shot stopper in the league [Bill Hamid from Midtjylland].


You say that you were brought in as an ‘advisor’. Who was driving what you were advising on? You or the clubs?

I won’t go into a club without some plan, and usually that plan is very focussed on evidence-based decision-making. But to say that the advisor coming into the club is the change agent to me is mistaken. The person bringing in the advisor is the change agent, right? To make the change occur they have to support and empower the person they hired.

Even if it’s possible to implement those new processes, people have to pay attention to those processes if they’re going to make any difference. You can build whatever structures you want, but if people don’t take them into account when making decisions, it doesn’t matter.


Did you sell yourself to the new owners or did they come knocking on your door?

I basically cold-called Jason Levien, as I was in full-on consultant mode, hustling to get clients. To have to sell yourself constantly in order to earn a living is a difficult thing for anybody, and another reason I took the job was to relax that pressure a little and focus on the professional side.


It’s early for football with analytics. People aren’t sold, so how did you sell your stuff?

Well, Jason was coming from basketball. He’d been a successful executive in the NBA and prior to that an agent. I think people in the NBA have a deep appreciation for analytics.


There are plenty of other American owners around now. The Liverpool guys seem to be one of the few to be able to successfully implement what they want and it’s taken them a number of years. What are the barriers to these owners implementing their vision?

I think the only barriers are themselves. They have all of the power. They can implement any processes they want, change any personnel they want. But it’s a question of how much attention they’re willing to give to it and how bold they’re willing to be in acting.


Do you think that in football the problem is that they’re ‘foreign’ guys in a ‘foreign’ game and they’re not bold enough to make those decisions – especially with the media scrutiny they’d be under?

That’s part of it. I think that there are some investors who see the Premier League and other European leagues as cash cows, and they want to get in. But once they’re in, and they realise they don’t know much about the game or how clubs work internally, they place a lot of trust in incumbents. The problem tends to occur not simply when they place trust in incumbents, but when they start to feel comfortable about making decisions perhaps before they ought to. After a while they say, “This is not so difficult, and I can actually make some decisions here.” But they may not be quite ready to do that. Then again, this is often why they bought a football club and not a widget factory. They want to be involved in the sporting side, because it’s their passion – the problem is that sometimes indulging your passion means being less than rational when making decisions.


At what stage were you asked for your input with regards recruitment?

The owners were free to talk to me at any time. With the mid-level staff at any club I would have a regular schedule of normal interactions, but owners tend to pick up the phone when the spirit moves them!


How were your interactions with club staff?

All the permanent staff were receptive to what I was doing. I was always well received. Swansea is a club that is staffed by really wonderful people. I was actually pretty happy with the relationships that I had formed with the permanent staff. But even when we had consensus on decisions amongst ourselves, there was no guarantee that people above us would take that on board. And in the summer after relegation, the head of recruitment and all the scouts were sacked.


How did the end come about for you?

I got a call saying the club could no longer afford its share of my fee.


Was it a surprise?

It was and it wasn’t. I had already told my wife that I would only stay a couple more months, and she was very supportive of that!


Was that just in frustration of not being heard?

Yeah. I mean it’s the old Steve Jobs maxim: “If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have let them make a lot of decisions, and you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise good people don’t stay.” It was frustrating for everyone.


Your new smarterscout platform. Was that something that came out of that phone call or was it in development before then?

One of the things I realised during my time at Swansea and DC was that the analytics were really working. When Wayne Rooney came over to DC United, he performed exactly where the analytics said he would, at different positions too, in many, many aspects of his game. It was really good proof that the basic algorithms and league adjustments were working. As you can see on smarterscout, I tend to publish my metrics on a 0-99 scale, and he hit a huge number of metrics within plus or minus 5 on those scales. It really alerted me to how powerful the tools could be, even though it’s something I’ve worked hard to achieve for six years or so. I had a couple of other things I was pursuing, so I didn’t really launch the development of smarterscout until January this year. I’m refining the metrics all the time, and now I’m trying to put online a mature version that looks at as many facets of a player’s game as possible.


Is there anything new in there that we haven’t seen from you before?

If you look on smarterscout.com at the FAQ, I’ve tried to give a good idea of how everything works, and for an analyst all the outlines are there to understand each of the metrics. I’d give a particular mention to Todd Kingston. He deserves enormous credit. Todd was the one who proposed using Elo ratings for aerial duels to gauge aerial skill. And in fact, you can see many things that happen during a course of a match as duels: aerial duels, ground duels and even shooting and saving. Now, I don’t use the Elo system – I use a different functional form that I think has nicer mathematical properties – but it’s the same sort of principle. If there were a Nobel Prize in football analytics, then Todd should get one.

Smarterscout is a way to bring analytics to the public, because so much of the analytics that’s been done is shrouded in secrecy. I don’t really see a reason for that. If you look at other sports, there are online portals that offer a wealth of analytical information to the public. There’s no reason that in football this information should continue to be mysterious. Rather than people releasing stuff in dribs and drabs, which I know I was guilty of before, I want to get it all out there and give people access to it. Even from a business perspective, getting a huge audience for this type of thing could be a step in the right direction. I hope a lot of people will use the site and help us to grow the site. We’ll be adding new stuff as we go, and hopefully people will join us on that journey.


Tell me about the NYA Fellowship Programme

I launched the fellowship programme because I thought there were a lot of barriers that I didn’t want people to face, especially people underrepresented in the field. It seems like 90-95% of the people in this field are white males. There are a few women and a few non-white people, but even among those people most people come from Europe and North America. I wanted to create something that would allow other people to enter the field – people who didn’t have the same advantages I had. When I started, I had already worked as an economist; I had some money to buy data and connections even to football clubs. I wanted to offer those same advantages to analysts who were starting out. We gave the first two fellowships to Kuba Michalczyk, who’s Polish, and to Abhinav Ralhan, who’s Indian. Both continue to work on their own stuff with the mentoring and network I can provide to share their work. We’re closing the applications for this second year’s fellowships at the end of this month.


You say that you were guilty of too much secrecy before. What’s happened to change your mind?

Well, when I was running a consulting firm by myself and hustling for every dollar, I think that had a negative effect on my personality and how I interacted with other people. You feel very competitive, you feel like you have to keep things very close to the vest. Getting out of that situation for a while helped in terms of mellowing out a bit. I see it in a different way now. If you can find a way to pursue this field and do it in a fashion that’s positive for as many people as possible, you might be able to gain just as much success.


Do you want to get back into a football club or are you exploring other avenues now?

It’s no secret that I’m now part of an investment manager called NYK Capital Management, and our goal is to buy a lower-division club in Europe. We have a small group of investors and have been vetting deals for some time now. We think that one of the best ways to monetize analytics is to go to Europe, buy a lower division club and get promoted. We think that’s a great way to create value for investors. We’ve been researching for about a year and fundraising at the same time, and we’re getting close. Obviously, if we complete a transaction, everyone will know about it!

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