How Soccer, the World’s Biggest Sport, is a Game of Innovation

World's Biggest Sport

Billions of people across the globe are watching the World Cup soccer tournament (3.2 billion people watched the cup in 2014), as teams from across the globe compete towards the final on July 15.

Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is big business. Europe, the biggest soccer market in the world, generated an estimated $24.6 billion in 2015-16 soccer season; English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish soccer leagues alone pulled in $18 billion in the 2016-17 season.

I wouldn’t call myself a big soccer fan, but what got me hooked onto this World Cup is the level of innovation that has been going into the sport. In addition to enjoying the world’s biggest fan base, soccer is reinventing itself continually to stay a winner.

How soccer is innovating is an example of how industry giants can continue to reinvent themselves and disrupt their own industries, essentially not resting on their laurels, but taking pages from the startups’ playbook. Here is how:

1. Embrace new technology.

If you’ve been watching the World Cup you’ve seen that there’s a new gesture the referee uses at moments of uncertainty. When he doesn’t know if a goal is a goal or a foul is reason for a penalty, he will draw a large rectangle in space with his arms. That is the new universal sign that means he is using the Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR) to make his decision.

VAR can help with calling penalties and goals, taking the guesswork out of the equation (watch The New Yorker’s Revising World Cup History With VAR to understand how some of the most remarkable soccer moments would’ve changed with VAR).

Combining the most traditional of services and products (like soccer) with technology (like VAR) results in disruptive innovation.

This is in line with findings from IBM’s Global CEO Study 2017, which states that, “Innovative incumbents can turn their ownership of infrastructure and assets, and their expertise at managing them, into new disruptive advantage,” by bridging digital and physical worlds.

2. Have a star, or a star concept.

Before Tesla, no one could imagine an electric vehicle that accelerated like a Lamborghini. Before Kylian MbappĂ©, the 19-year-old French soccer star, who ran a 38 km/h sprint during the France-Argentina game, no one could imagine that a soccer player can run like the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt (44.72 km/h).

Take something that seems impossible in your industry, something that everyone assumes can’t be done, and figure out a way to make it possible. Breaking old preconceptions is what makes a company, or a soccer player, a star.

3. Improve human-centered performance with real data.

Soccer is the latest sport to deploy wearable technology (rugby has been using it for a decade). This is improving the quantity and quality of data–speed, distance, heart rate of players to help team doctors and coaches understand how a player is doing physically to help reduce injuries. Coaches can now know where their players are distributed in the field to develop effective team tactics and respond to situations strategically and in real time.

Where else can you use real data to increase performance? Work. Theater. Manufacturing. Health. It is hard to imagine an industry that doesn’t want or need to perform better.

Think about 1.) how to capture data and 2.) how to use the data to improve human-centered performance. So that your players, like soccer players, can do their best work.

World's Biggest Sport

4. Have a winning team.

When you watch the World Cup it doesn’t take long to see that the winning teams are the teams that work together. They feel intentional about how they move on the field together. Follow a well-practiced strategy and, most importantly, support each other. Even the stars work as a member of the team–using their talent to augment the team. And together they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Teams that play together win.

It is the same with innovation. Every team needs a coach or a strategist, and every team can use a star, but what every winning team does is play the game together, whether in innovation or soccer.