Why is football transfer tech stuck in the 1980s?

The David De Gea saga suggests football technology has not kept pace with commercial growth of 'the beautiful game'

Here in England, the twice-yearly transfer deadline window has become a quirky highlight of the calendar as football (the soccer version) clubs race to complete player trades before hard deadlines. Unlike the case with some other sports these deals are unashamedly capitalist and venal, with no attempt to make the league more competitive. The English transfer model is not like American football’s draft system: the richest teams get the top players so long as those players fancy the change of scene and the stratospheric wages that go with the switch. Awash with broadcast money, in England’s Premier League players change hands for tens of millions of pounds and can earn over £250,000 ($381,000) per week. That’s even before commercial endorsements top up the coffers of these pampered princes of “the beautiful game”.

England is renowned for the passion of supporters – the word ‘tribal is both cliché and apposite – and fans flock to screens to watch the frenzied US-style coverage of “deadline day” on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky digital TV service. The window that closed on Tuesday this week was in truth something of an anti-climax, however. Nonetheless, it was the richest ever with about £870m ($1.3bn) being spent on transfer fees and Manchester United paying £36m ($55m) for Anthony Martial, an obscure French teenager.

But the news was dominated by players who didn’t complete their deals. West Bromwich striker Saido Berahino sulked when his circa £25m ($38m) deal to join Tottenham fell through, saying he would never again play for the club while the chairman who turned down the offer remained. Even more newsworthy was the epic saga of how Spanish goalkeeping prodigy David De Gea’s off/on deal to swap one of the world’s most fabled clubs, Manchester United, for another, Real Madrid, ended with what appears to have been a low-tech screw-up that saw the £29m ($44m) valuation swap fall through at, almost literally, the last minute.

The Transfer Matching System that is run by the global football body FIFA sounds familiar to anybody acquainted with the way modern communications and collaboration works. A secure online portal lets the deal be registered and quickly approved so the player can kiss the badge of his new team when he appears in their colours.

But other paperwork appears to be locked up in processes that haven’t evolved much since the legal paper trails of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, as memorably satirised by Charles Dickens in is novel Bleak House. The result is, very often, chaos, as opaque deals break down to the annoyance of players, clubs and fans.

United and Real blame each other but the suggestion from Spain is that United sent necessary documents (by fax, according to The Guardian!) very late, leaving no time for Real to process the deal. United say that Real failed to send over a signatory page and upload documents in time to be accepted by TMS. So much for millisecond real-time trading as saluted by the ICT industry in other fields. The result is that De Gea remains in Manchester – at least until the next window opens in January.

In a game drowning in cash and with football becoming ever more popular all over the world, how can this be? One company, albeit with an obvious partisan interest, is DocuSign, the heavily venture-backed electronic signature company that has been promising to “kick the fax out of football” for over a year.

It’s a powerful campaign because it perfectly captures football’s conundrum: the canyon separating the gusher of money coming into the game and the game’s seeming inability to capitalise on its wealth or put in place systems that work for it. So, I asked, how come football clubs aren’t e-signing these deals and putting in professional processes to give them the best chance of getting value for money and keeping players and fans happy?

“We have a couple of Premier League clubs using us but they’re using it for season tickets, HR contracts et cetera and what they’re telling us that they’re not allowed to implement it for transfers because it has to be sanctioned by [English football authority], the FA,” says Jesper Frederiksen, DocuSign’s VP for EMEA.

Owen Quennell, who runs DocuSign’s partnership programme, adds:

“One of the key things we see on deadline day is the player in the medical room or training ground of the new club they’re joining. And one of the things we can do is make it possible for the player to sign with their agent off premises rather than driving up the motorway to Glasgow or down to Cardiff - and we can do it remotely with all the authentication needed.”

So why isn’t DocuSign or one of its rivals a fixture across football clubs?

“We’ve tried to kick off these conversations and there’s nothing we’d like more to do than move them into this century,” says Frederiksen. “I always think: why is this different to a solicitor or an investment banker doing an M&A transaction? You’ve got stakeholders, two clubs, the player… that’s what [e-signatures were] invented for: to run a complicated workflow, speed it up and leave an audit trail.”

Frederiksen and Quennell say there would be other benefits too if there was an officially recognised central electronic process across the transfer system, including more transparency, lower agent fees and better governance.

But for now it seems the football transfer system will rely on brinksmanship, ‘he said, she said’ arguments and attitudes to technology that are from the days of men in handlebar moustaches kicking a pig’s bladder – or at least the fax era.


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