World football has slowly begun to move away from more than a century of tradition by allowing technology to assist with decision making during top-flight football matches.
Inching technology into the sport has proved difficult thus far, not least that it causes disruption to the flow of the game. The prevailing view is that all technologies that go into a sport should feel like it is evolving it not causing more angst for player, official and viewer, yet football haven’t quite struck upon an innovation that won’t interrupt the game.
An Australian company has taken another approach with technology that appears seamless to the game rather than noticeable. Called RefLIVE, it is a paperless solution for football referees, an app for smartwatches and smartphones that digitises pre-match, in-game, and post-match refereeing tasks and duties.
The company is still in its early days so it was worth having a chat with RefLIVE’s Founder and CEO Simon Murphy where he told Bullpen about what brought them to this point and where they could go into the future.
Bullpen: Let’s go back to the beginnings. What drove you to create and develop such a product?
Simon Murphy: “I’ve always been obsessed with sport for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I was really into basketball, same as my parents, basketball was a big thing for my siblings and myself growing up.
“I’ve always been really passionate about the things that I’ve followed. Real-time information and real-time data has always been a huge interest to me as well.”
BP: I remember the obsession with sports statistics really began to gather pace in the 2000’s.
SM: “Absolutely, and I think that it’s really shaped a big part of the sports culture.
“To be honest I didn’t really start playing football seriously as a youngster, I played basketball, cricket, Australian rules football, then I started getting into football at 15. A year later I took up refereeing, initially because the pay was quite good, but it became a really good way to engage in the game and learn different aspects of it.
“Gradually over that time I started playing football seriously and within a couple of years, when I was 18, I headed over to the US to play college soccer and study business. Business was always a real passion, something I really enjoyed. Starting businesses and companies was always a big interest to me.
“People kind of misconstrue my background that I was an ex-player, but I was only ever a semi-pro level ex-athlete, who had an idea and jumped into a business, when it’s definitely much more the other way I had a couple business degrees, and although I dislike the word I was an entrepreneur, and I think that that formed the basis of knowing what to look out for to start and build a business.
“My obsession with sports, scoring, data and football really intersected with the idea for RefLIVE.”
BP: It wasn’t a particular just snap moment then?
SM: “It’s usually when you dig a bit deeper that’s when the real basis of the idea forms. You can have a little way of doing something different or it usually starts with a problem and then from there once you start playing around with the solution that’s where the ideas come from. I feel “lightbulb” moments are much rarer than the traditional way that ideas and businesses are formed.”
BP: Let’s delve into the product. How does a referee use it and ensures it is much more a seamless process than using paper?
SM: “Simplicity has been at the forefront of all of our development work that we’ve done and that’s our core principle. It starts at the smartphone, being able to set up a game and create all the conditions for a game from your phone and then input that with the information you provided such as team sheets and then you sync that with your smartwatch.
“After the direct upload, you’ve got your stopwatch or timer ready to go on your smartwatch. Then as events happen you easily and quickly input information into your watch and then after a game it re-syncs with your smartphone. Once the re-sync occurs it generates a match report of all the information you’ve entered.
“The information presented looks similar to when you check football league scores and line-ups. It’s presented in a linear format of what happened in the game and then that information can be submitted via e-mail.
“What we’re working on now is working with a few leagues at the higher elite level to integrate with their software platforms to be able to have all information pre-loaded for the referee.”
BP: Has the product gone through a lot of iterations and changes?
SM: “The core functionality hasn’t changed but overall the product has certainly changed and evolved a whole lot. We launched in June of last year, and straight away we got a lot of feedback and our users are incredible because they’re quick to tell us what they like and don’t like and they’re brutally honest. It has helped that the company has a really vocal user support network, suggesting ideas, wanting to help improve the product, especially users who have been using the product for over a year.
“One of the challenges with an app and software product is and you’ve got to be mindful of the majority of users. Having said that we’re willing to test anything that’s not going to denigrate the overall experience.”
BP: Do you tend to go for individual users or would you go to some organisations, governing bodies, football federations?
SM: “It’s finding a balance of both. There’s the consumer marketing side of things and then you’ve got the business-to-business side, both different processes. We do focus a lot on the consumer but to be honest we’ve done very little marketing, it’s almost entirely organic growth which is amazing and the growth has been global.
“The US, UK and Japan are probably the three biggest countries we’ve seen great demand, we’re starting to see traffic and downloads from additional markets like Brazil, Italy, Poland and Netherlands.”
BP: It’s organic growth but as you’d recognise these are all big footballing nations.
SM: “That’s what we figured but at the start we knew we had to be patient. Football of course is a broad market while refereeing is a bit of a niche area. We’re definitely seeing a huge spike in interest from leagues, governing bodies and associations particularly at the professional level.”
BP: When did the validation come from that made you realise that this could be a viable product? Even the moment or moments where you realised we have hit upon a niche here.
SM: “We were used in a FIFA sanctioned international friendly when Australia played New Zealand in Ballarat last year. I think that was the biggest validation because the referee that used it did that day raved about it and talking to other FIFA referees who thought it was incredible.
“The first thing is presenting it to people and seeing that first impression, you can see them trying to get their head around it.
“To get people on board it goes through a few stages: When you mention the product and when you show them they just see how simple and easy it is to use, they don’t need directions to figure out the product. That was awesome and that validated the product. Then I’d say the last thing that validated for us was people beginning to use it around the world within a few months of launching, we had users emailing us saying they bought an Apple Watch just to use our app! I mean spending hundreds of dollars on a smartwatch to use our app.”
BP: Do you have a take on why there has been a slow acceptance and integration of technology into football?
SM: “I think it’s a combination of reasons, talking about before how much technology has evolved in the last 10 years and in my lifetime. It’s just unbelievable. Years ago, you just could not fathom everyone would basically run their life through their phone. I think we forget sometimes how far we’ve actually come and look at the people who are in the position of making these technological decisions. I’m not saying older people don’t know how to use technology but it’s not millennials that are running these organisations where anyone born recently has grown up knowing that smartphones are a central point of everyone’s life.
“Technology is still really new and even though there’s a lot of incredible uses for it within sports we’re not going to see change occur overnight. At the top level where it’s such a cut-throat industry it’s a little too easy for a fan to say, “oh they should be doing this,” but a person’s job is on the line if the tech fails or it creates more issues. Now with VAR in football, it makes sense in theory but once you implement it and roll it out it’s just a whole different thing. Anyone who has started a technology or software company will say the exact same thing you’ve got to iterate numerous times before you get it to a level where it’s easy for the user.”
BP: We’re seeing a lot of teething issues with VAR across football. Perhaps it is a bigger challenge integrating that kind of tech into a sport where it is flowing, snap decisions are made with a person’s eyes, and it is pen and paper focussed.
SM: “Absolutely, football is tough one as it’s not prone to stoppages. What’s been implemented into tennis and cricket has been phenomenal, it doesn’t disrupt the natural flow or ebb and flow of the game. VAR in football, where some of these complicated decisions take a few minutes to review, it doesn’t feel like it’s a natural progression to the sport like it is in other sports.”
BP: Looking ahead for RefLIVE, are you considering expanding the product into other high participation sports? Is there any testing with that at the moment?
SM: “We’ve had a lot of inquiries about rugby, and a number of queries about hockey. Then we got an unexpected one from Europe where the app is currently being used by someone in handball.
“Then there’s lacrosse and we’re looking at doing something with Australian rules football shortly. Hopefully we can make some announcements about that in the next couple of months or so but primarily we’re really football focussed. It’s definitely not a small job to do football and while we do want to get into other sports, it’s naive to think that once you’ve had success in football it will be the same in other sports.”
BP: You’re absolutely right. Each vertical has its own challenges. And what other milestones would you like RefLIVE to tick off? Perhaps FIFA tournaments, league-wide deals?
SM: “Definitely the stuff you’ve mentioned and hopefully we’ll announce some stuff soon that we’re doing with professional leagues.
“We just don’t believe in putting limits on ourselves. Why can’t every referee in the world be using RefLIVE in five or 10 years? Obviously, there’s more realistic short-term goals but we’ve organically grown so much and as our platform progresses and we offer a range of different solutions for leagues there’s really no limits for us. For us to be able to work on a really cool problem in football we don’t see any restrictions on what we can do.”