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Sunday, June 16, 2024

From Senegal to Barcelona: Is Eyeball revolutionising global youth scouting?

“There are 15 and 16-year-olds who will be superstars of the next World Cup. They’re growing up on our platform now. Some clubs just don’t realise it yet,” says Eyeball co-founder David Hicks.

It is one of the messages the company has been hammering home to European clubs since 2020, when it embarked on its mission to revolutionise the scouting industry.

As the first video scouting platform for elite youth football, Eyeball’s goal is to become part of every club’s recruitment arsenal in the same way Wyscout has at senior level. It is well on its way. More than 112,000 players, from under-12 to under-21 level, feature on Eyeball’s platform, a database that spans 570 different clubs in 23 countries.

It has 110 European clubs — including eight English Premier League clubs — paying monthly subscriptions of between €800 and €2,800 (£680 and £2,400; $860 and $3,000) for access to individual countries or geographical packages.

Eyeball is now backed by an investment group overseen by a Danish billionaire.

It was the frustrations of Hicks’ godson and fellow Eyeball co-founder Benjamin Balkin, a former Monaco youth player, that proved to be the genesis of Eyeball. Balkin was writing scouting reports on youth players in Denmark but the common response from clubs was that they needed video footage before they would arrange a trial.

Therein lay the issue: there was no regular, industry-standard footage of youth players throughout their formative years, apart from the small pool selected for their national teams.

Eyeball’s four founders — Hicks, Balkin, Manfred Lerley and Emil Kjeldsen — discovered a way to fix the problem.

They launched in France by partnering with 50 amateur clubs, providing the company with a 7.5m (24ft) camera that automatically captured the whole pitch and followed the ball.

In return, all the clubs had to do was upload the footage onto the server. Eyeball would then break down the game into player-specific and skill-specific clips for professional clubs to analyse.

That brought Eyeball its first clients and it has since gradually rolled out the same business model in the UK (mainly Category 2, 3 and 4 academies — the three levels lower than Category 1, which tend to be the best funded and are often Premier League clubs). Teams in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Scandinavia and nine countries in Africa are also using the system, uploading footage of the best players in their leagues.

What the Eyeball interface looks like

There are different challenges in entering each market. In Scandinavia, beyond the age of 16, it is mandated that clubs film their games, so only a deal with the federations was required. However, in Africa, Eyeball had to provide the camera infrastructure free of charge to get it off the ground, typically securing parental permission through the clubs to film the players.

“It was very obvious very quickly we needed a robust camera system that had as little human input as possible,” says Hicks.

“We’ve found that the coaches are very reliable as they get access to watch the game and do their own analysis. That’s enough value for them to make sure the camera is charged on the day and they upload the match.

“African academies are combing their countries trying to find talents. They want them to succeed in the world so their ambitions are aligned with our customers.

“We don’t try and get in on any of the transactions, we’re not looking for a cut, we’re not trying to push one player over another. We’re just a facilitator, a shop window.”

Eyeball’s plans have been boosted by major investment from Founderment, a Denmark-based venture fund that backs technology startups. It is owned by entrepreneurs Christian Schwarz Lausten and Anders Mogensen alongside Heartland A/S, the holding company of Denmark’s wealthiest man Anders Holch Povlsen.

Anders Holch Povlsen’s holding company is investing in Eyeball (Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images)

Povlsen’s total wealth is an estimated £8.5billion ($10.7bn) and he is also the largest individual private landowner in the UK. He has an existing interest in football having increased his shareholding in Midtjylland to 95.5 per cent in August when he bought out Brentford owner Matthew Benham.

After a year-long conversation, Founderment and Eyeball signed an agreement in Aarhus last month that will help accelerate the company’s aggressive expansion into new territories.

They hope Eyeball will be active in 33 countries by 2025, with Croatia and Germany databases being added to the platform next month. Slovakia and Poland are the next two, and South America is scheduled for next year.

Eyeball has Champions League clubs using its system but it also has subscribers in second-division sides in Italy, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

They do not know of any direct competitors in the youth scouting space. AI Scout is aimed at players uploading their own clips and Tonsser is an e-scouting app that allows youth players and their coaches to track data, but what is to stop a big company like Hudl or Wyscout from replicating what they do?

“When we sell we have to displace old fashioned methods, not alternative platforms. Even Wyscout only covers senior football in any meaningful way,” says Hicks.

“It is possible, but we know how complicated it is to do so we are not very concerned. We want to become the established platform meaning any new player has a real uphill challenge. We have built a great platform. Scale is our objective now.”

The best example of how Eyeball is altering football’s ecosystem is the career trajectory of Senegalese centre-back Mikayil Faye. The 19-year-old was playing for Diambars, a club in Senegal’s Ligue 1, but was spotted on Eyeball by Croatian second-division club Kustosija in February 2023 and, after eight games, was signed by Barcelona for €1.5million. After excelling in their B team, he has been the subject of a €10million bid from Ligue 1 side Lens.

Its motto, ‘talent is everywhere’, is embodied by France, which was identified as Eyeball’s first market due to the unique structure of youth football in the country. The first professional academy intake starts at under-12 level but it binds clubs to those players until they turn 18, meaning there is so much talent spread elsewhere at amateur clubs.

At under-17 level, there are usually five or six amateur clubs finishing in the top four of the national league despite competing against professional clubs.

Eyeball delivers a daily subscriber feed highlighting market trends and interesting profiles, which it did in December about whether Istres winger 18-year-old Gessime Yassine, playing in France’s fifth tier, could be the next Riyad Mahrez and make a late entrance into the professional ranks. Within weeks, he had been signed and made his debut for Ligue 2 club Dunkerque.

“It provides us with three essential factors to help our players: visibility, references and performance data. These elements reinforce the individual player pathways available,” says Rohat Sari, under-14s coach at Bondy, the former youth club of Kylian Mbappe.

It has taken Eyeball time to sharpen its focus. First, it was about saving clubs money on scouting, then it was about expanding its horizons beyond its immediate catchment area, but the central tenet has become apparent in the modern financial fair play climate.

With revenue streams from matchdays, commercial deals and TV rights being centralised or having a ceiling, small-to-mid-sized clubs have to find a differentiator and big clubs have to recoup money to ensure they live within their means.

“Eyeball is the future because player trading is the No 1 thing any club can do to reach financial sustainability,” declares Hicks.

He points to research that demonstrates the difficulties in predicting youth development. Of the boys entering English academies at the age of nine, less than 0.5 per cent will ever make a living from the game. If they are still there by 16, it rises to only four per cent.

“It is chronic inefficiency. Jude Bellingham is 20 now but in football, we can’t tell which 16-year-olds are going to be the best 20-year-olds. But surely with data and analysis, we are honing in on how to identify talents as they come through. That’s what Eyeball is going to do.

Jude Bellingham, a teenager prodigy who became a star (Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

“What’s the biggest business lever clubs have left to play with? It’s the quality of the input. If you got the wrong players going in, you’re not going to get the right players coming out and surely success rates are telling you that an awful lot of those were never going to make it in the first place.”

Hicks ran into common feedback early on — youth scouting was a niche market and not scalable. However, Eyeball has second-division clubs in many countries who are paying for more expensive packages than some Premier League clubs.

“When you’re selling something new, everyone intellectually gets it but they want to wait and see how good the coverage is.”

“Clubs can pay for one scout to fly to Paris, stay in a hotel, get taxis, eat lunch, dinner and fly back. All to see a few games. With us, they get access to 50,000 French kids whenever they like and can have 40 log-ins for less cost.”

The Athletic spoke to several scouts who have used Eyeball. They unanimously recognise the platform’s “golden nugget” of providing access to markets that previously did not exist and the crucial ability to efficiently filter their search via 48 different parameters.

They note that the individual tagging of games (breaking down the 90 minutes into individual micro-actions) is not comprehensive yet and the functionality could still be improved, but Eyeball knows it is not the finished article having launched four years ago.

With more than 50 employees and an overall spend of over £5million, Eyeball is continuing to invest in making the platform more sophisticated and user-friendly. Its rapid progress has seen the majority of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ clubs in England sign up recently.

Eyeball spotted a gap in the market and has gone about filling it, signing clubs up to 10-year contracts. It is aiming to build a community among aspiring players and has developed an app so they can watch their own clips and those of others.

It means the ‘next Lionel Messi’ growing up in Ivory Coast could have every organised kick of a ball recorded through his adolescent years. Not only that, its app means that the ‘next Cristiano Ronaldo’ coming through at a French amateur club on Eyeball can witness his future rival’s journey too.

(Top photo: Faye is one of the success stories of Eyeball – Omar Vega/Getty Images)

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