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How Ulster hero Tommy Bowe's sister Hannah is finding winning formula

 

By Jonathan Bradley

There was a time when sports and maths were seen as two separate entities. In rugby, if you could count from one to 15 and add your sevens, threes and fives, that was likely as much as you needed.

Number crunching never seemed the most glamorous of occupations, certainly not when compared to the increasing glitz enjoyed by famous sportsmen and sportswomen around the globe, and so it always seemed it would remain.

In the new millennium, though, the two worlds have collided.

An ethos that was brought to wider attention by the best-selling book 'Moneyball', and later by the film adaptation of the same name starring Brad Pitt, wherein a formula for how the low-spending Oakland Athletics could compete with baseball's moneyed powerhouses if they used the maths to spend more wisely, sparked a rethink of how teams are best constructed.

All of a sudden, having once been seen as the work of human calculators in dusty basements, analytics departments were everywhere in the US sporting scene and those relying on the old fashioned eye test to evaluate players were seen as somehow stuck in the past.

In rugby, a similar poring over data has begun at the Esportif talent agency where Hannah Bowe is heading up the company's recently established intelligence division and looking to give new insights into the business side of a sport that can still seem ill at ease with the idea that it is also an industry.

An Oxford Engineering and Economics graduate, a former Irish international hockey player and the sister of Ulster hero Tommy Bowe, on paper she was tailor-made for such a role at the company who represent Kingspan Stadium favourites like Rory Best, Charles Piutau and Jacob Stockdale, and where former Ulsterman Ryan Constable fronts up the operation in Ireland as a director.

In reality, the younger Bowe sibling originally thought her career would take her far away from the oval ball.

"I didn't want to do anything with rugby really," she admitted. "With Tommy's job being what it was, I just thought I'd be better doing something else.

"Whenever there was first talk about a role with Esportif, I had been going to Australia as well so it was never really planned that way."

Indeed, when she did come to work for the company after three years spent working with Deloitte and those couple travelling in Australia, it was not to spend hours mining data for spending trends but as a Commercial Media Executive, seeing out her day by managing players off the field and trying to help maximise their opportunities away from the game.

It was only really by chance that her more bespoke skill-sets came to the fore.

"I was always into maths," she said. "In school, I chose every subject that involved numbers because it meant I wouldn't have to write. We had to do 20,000 words for a dissertation once and it put the fear of God into me, but I was always able to understand numbers.

"When I arrived in Esportif, they'd gathered the first set of data, but they still weren't sure what they were going to do with it. I was at the meeting and heard about what they were doing and said I'd have a crack at it.

"From there we made a business plan and Esportif really let me have free rein to just try and make something of it. Hopefully it's proving its worth now."

Starting in March of 2016, the work came to prominence on social media, providing interesting insights into various aspects of the game such as comparing the revenue streams of sides competing in the Champions Cup and examining elements of recruitment like on which position teams in different leagues are spending their money.

That, though, was designed more to give a snapshot of the work that has been done so far. Most interesting of all is where it goes from here.

Money is a part of rugby now in a way that would have seemed unimaginable in the game's amateur days a little over two decades ago and it's only natural that sides will increasingly look for the smartest ways to spend it.

While there are many strands to Bowe's remit, especially given the tailor-made work they do for external parties, in essence she is looking to turn data into a formula for the best way to build a winning rugby team.

"It's always been a bugbear of mine that we don't apply business concepts to sports," she explained.

"Rugby is in a funny position at the moment because there's no doubt the direction it's going in but football is still another beast. So rugby is very much still in a position of, 'Where can we get best value for our pound?'

"That's where the intel can help. We collect everything we can, sometimes we don't even know what we're going to do with it, but it all gets put together and as it comes in, the baselines are there.

"What we're really trying to do is find best practice, be that spend on whole squads versus starting XV, size of squads, age groups of players, pathways, internationals and non-internationals.

"Saracens and Leinster, a product of their success is that guys want to be there, but you look at what is coming into their Academies and they're saving so much.

"Those guys might have the biggest budgets, but ultimately what they have through the Academies is time saved on recruitment specialists, agency fees, and indeed if those players are in the system and have come through there, then they might be happier to stay (for less) as long as they're getting the opportunity.

"You can go to a club that's struggling and say, 'This is you, and this is the top four teams in Europe, let's see where the differences lie'. It could be anything, they may spend all their money on out-half and tight-head, or it could be seeing overspending on the starting XV. It's not a science but all that data that we collect feeds into a bigger picture, a bigger puzzle."

For Hannah Bowe, trying to solve that puzzle is all in a day's work.

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