The Leicester Tigers moneyball approach has been credited with having a major part in their resurgence up the table. But what is it, and how does it help the Tigers?
Recently it was revealed that Leicester Tigers have a new recruitment strategy, which follows the successful moneyball approach that was made famous by baseball team Oakland Athletics. This of course was then turned into a film featuring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and took the methods into the mainstream. This approach has now been adopted by Tigers and now forms a big part of their recruitment process, helping them evaluate which players to bring in to the club or not.
Background – Moneyball tactic at Leicester Tigers
The Leicester Tigers moneyball approach has been in place at the club ever since Head Coach Steve Borthwick joined the club back in July 2019, with a mission to take them to the top of the table after numerous years of decline. This decline has been well-documented with numerous reasons given as to why and how that happened. Well chief amongst them was the previous recruitment policy that had been in place – a rugby committee that met and discussed new players and managed transfers. This policy was horribly outdated, inefficient, and delivered ultimately poorer and poorer results. It is hard to argue that the club had got value for their money when looking at the squad that Geordan Murphy inherited in 2018. Whilst improvements were made, the group that Borthwick inherited was one that was bloated, unbalanced, and lacking in real quality.
The ultimately terrible policy ensured that in a five-year period circa 100 players arrived and then left Tigers. To put that into context, effectively the same number had gone through the club in the preceding 10 years. A staggering statistic and one that demonstrates the lack of forward-thinking in place during that period. It also points to how Leicester dropped so badly. It is hard to generate continuity when players are coming and going so quickly, with little forethought as to why they were being signed and what purpose they were for, other than they played in a certain position.
What is the theoretical Moneyball approach?
But what is moneyball? Well, put simply it is the use of data analytics of player statistics to deliver an evidence-based approach to recruitment. This replaces the more traditional approach which relies on the reports made by numerous scouts from watching a player in the flesh. In more and more games and leagues around the world, every action that an individual player makes on a pitch can be tracked and monitored, with the data then inputted into a system. As a result, any Head of Recruitment can utilize that database of numbers as an aid to helping them make recruitment decisions. This is by comparing a player’s statistics against the budget that is available to them to use.
Freddie Burns summed up the approach in an interview with Jim Hamilton in 2021. When asked about the discussion he had had with Leicester ahead of agreeing to join, he revealed that Tigers had told him that he “was statistically the best fly-half available on the money they could spend.”
The benefits and advantages of using this system are numerous, and it is no surprise to see why the Tigers and Borthwick are utilising this process. Where Oakland Athletics benefited from this approach was by focussing on the less traditional statistics available to them; catching their opponents cold in the process by putting together a squad that punched massively above its weight compared to other teams in the league. Whilst Oakland’s roster was built on a budget of $44m, they beat more illustrious opponents who had spent figures of circa $125m to build their squad.
The approach used by Leicester has been credited to help them make signings such as Guy Porter, Hosea Saumaki, and Bryce Hegarty, with the playing group showing a vast improvement compared to what Borthwick inherited; with a much better balance, a strength in the depth of the playing group, and a greater talent pool across all positions. The Tigers moneyball approach has run perfectly alongside the flourishing Academy the club has in place, meaning the club is in a much stronger position to deal with the Salary Cap reduction that is about to be implemented.
So what are the benefits?
The benefits of using this approach are wide, and it is no surprise to see a coach like Borthwick utilizing it to help rebuild the East-Midlands club. For starters, it makes your recruitment strategy more streamlined and efficient. Instead of each individual scout having to spend hours and hours watching games and footage of each player before making a judgment; all the information that you would need is available to you and can be filtered to help you make your decision. As a result, it can ensure that as a club you can move faster than your opponents in making a decision on a player & entering negotiations with them.
With the reduction in the Salary Cap fast approaching, all Premiership clubs are facing a squeeze on resources. As a result, getting bang for your buck becomes imperative, especially with the pressures of running a squad big enough to provide enough depth in such an attritional sport like rugby. This is where using the moneyball approach can give you an advantage. By using an evidence and analysis-based approach, a club is able to identify who are the best players available for their required budget. As a result, a club is able to get greater value for money from their budget and provide them with more confidence when making their choice in which player to target.
This Leicester Tigers moneyball approach works in tandem with a more traditional means of recruitment, it does not have to be a total replacement. Your scouting network can identify a player of talent and whom would be a good match for your requirements. Yet using the evidence-based system can ensure that you can compare them against other potential candidates and make a better decision quickly and efficiently. The statistics can confirm what your eyes are telling you.
Another benefit also allows a club to identify and recruit so-called ‘hidden gems’ – players that maybe no one else has heard of, or are playing in leagues that competitors are not looking at. This approach allows a club to widen its horizons and identify players in places that no one else had thought to look in. Once a player has been identified, a club can use the statistics available to them to compare and contrast and make a more educated decision on whether to recruit. It also allows a club to make a potential gamble end up being a much lower risk to themselves, as they can carry out fully formed research on a player before offering a contract – potentially on a much lower salary than what a more “well-known” player would be wanting.
Bringing this approach back to Tigers, think players such as Harry Potter and Nic Dolly who are great examples of complete unknowns coming to join Leicester, but hitting the ground running and transforming themselves into first-team regulars, but on starting contracts that would have been much lower.
Following in Leicester City’s footsteps
Leicester Tigers might be recent converts to this recruitment strategy, but only up the road from them are the perfect example of a club that has utilized this data-based methodology to get the best out of their recruitment. Leicester City are a football club with a superb reputation in the transfer market, well-known for upstaging their more illustrious rivals with players that cost a lot less and were not well-known before joining the Foxes. City has been using an evidence-based approach since 2011, when Nigel Pearson returned to the club, bringing back Steve Walsh as Head of Recruitment. In those years, Leicester have recruited the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Ngolo Kante and Wesley Fofana, who have contributed to a memorable period of success at the club with Promotion, an FA Cup win and most famously the Premier League in 2016.
Currently, Leicester Tigers have early access to the data analysis system being operated by Oval Insights, although, this will change in the near future with the rest of the league having access to it as well. Will that mean Tigers lose their advantage? Well no. They already have a head start on their opponents as they know how to use the system already and how to best operate it. Likewise in football and Leicester City FC – the use of statistics is much more advanced than it is in rugby, with nearly all top tier teams having a plethora of data at their fingertips – the Foxes just use and filter the data much better than anyone else. Remember Fofana and Kante were playing in the French Ligue 1, their top league when Leicester signed them. They were not hidden in an obscure league, however, City used their data well and backed themselves to make the signing ahead of competition. The data allowed them to make a judgment call to massive effect.
The Leicester Tigers moneyball approach is not new, nor is it groundbreaking. However, by utilizing it, the club has got ahead of their opponents and been a big part in their turnaround since Steve Borthwick joined the club. They have used the system to recruit well and transform a squad into one that is getting envious looks from around the league. The benefits of using this method are obvious, as Tigers are demonstrating.
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