Guest blog: the sport industry's love affair with Big Data

Posted on April 20, 2016
words by: Matt Waddingham 

In 2002, Billy Beane transformed the Oakland Athletics from an average Major League Baseball team in to record breakers. He didn’t achieve this feat by breaking the bank to recruit the league’s best players, instead Beane pioneered a new way of thinking that would completely transform the sport.

Working alongside his assistant Paul DePodesta (a Harvard-education statistician), Beane built a team using sabermetric principles – an inexpensive means of scouting and analysing players. Sabermetrics asks objective questions relating to player performance data, such as ‘Which player contributes most to the team’s offensive success?’. Beane and DePodesta used this method to unearth hidden gems within the league, players that, individually, were considered to have nothing to offer. However, as a team the results were incredible. During that season Oakland went on a 20-game winning streak (a record that still stands today) and were crowned champions of the American League West. The incredible story has since been immortalised in a best-selling book and blockbuster film (Moneyball) starring Brad Pitt.

Beane and DePodesta revolutionised the way Major League Baseball teams scout and recruit players. Furthermore, it can be argued that the pair ignited a technology-driven data boom which now holds so much importance across all sports.

This trend of collecting and analysing information using technology is commonly known as ‘Big Data’. The application of Big Data within the sport industry is endless and has caused sports organisations to place greater focus on innovative technologies which open up the potential data analysis. Arsenal Football Club for example have their own analytics team to make better use of the data it collects. They use technology to harness eight cameras installed around the Emirates Stadium that track the movements and interactions of every player on the pitch. The system tracks 10 data points per second for every player – that’s 1.4 million data points per game. This information is then analysed using specialist software which reveals a greater depth of insight in to how each player has performed.

Technology worn by athletes is also being used in a similar way with smart devices integrated in to wristbands, vests and footwear record an athlete’s performance when training. The device collects real-time information such as speed, heart rate, acceleration, distance travelled and technique. This tech is also being used in sports like Rugby and American Football to measure the impact of collisions. This kind of information is invaluable to backroom staff who are responsible for assessing the impact of training plans, preventing injury and outlining areas for improvement.

Arguably the most perfect synergy between Big Data and sport can be found in Formula 1. Before every race, Tata Communications lay 12 miles of fibre optic cable which sends data at the speed of light throughout the race venue. The network acquire information from 100 sensors on every car and is fed back to lap timers, broadcasters, engineering teams and drivers instantaneously. This information can ultimately shape the outcome of the race, as engineering teams and drivers can make incredibly precise adjustments to their cars and racing style. These tweaks shave vital milliseconds off lap times and can be the difference be the difference between winning and losing.

From an audience perspective, the shear amount of data that we have access to when watching a race is astounding, from lap times, distance between cars, speed and even the g-force effect on drivers. This vast amount of data also dictates what images we see on TV as broadcasters analyse real-time information to choose which driver audio to overlay and which cameras to highlight.

The use of Big Data in Formula 1 undoubtedly makes it the most technologically advanced sport, with information empowering teams, drivers, the media and audiences.

It’s clear that sports fans are also reaping the rewards of the industry’s love affair with Big Data, with organisations constantly pushing the boundaries of fan engagement. The recording, collection and use of sport-related data now means we can access a wealth of news, stats, analysis and other insightful information at the click of button. It’s even finding its way in to the places where we go to watch our favourite athletes. All NBA stadiums for example, use SportVU, a technology which utilises GPS enabled camera’s (much like Arsenal FC) to track players and the ball’s movements. This tech is being used in harmony with big screen systems to display real-time statistics to fans at the game. 

The Sacramento Kings are aiming to take fan engagement a step further with the completion of their new high-tech stadium. Once completed, the Golden 1 Center will include a super-fast network (including 1,000 Wi-Fi access points) that work in tandem with a mobile app to allow fans to find their seat, order food when they get there and get updates on which restroom has the shortest line. This isn't the first time the Sacramento Kings have experimented with the potential of technology to improve fan engagement. In 2014, they teamed up with software company CrowdOptic to give fans from all over the world a court side view of their game against the Indiana Pacers. Mascots, reporters, cheerleaders and even players were equipped with Google Glass technology allowing them to broadcast a live, first-person view of the entire game via the internet.

Watching basketball game from the view of ‘Slamson’ the Sacramento mascot, or wirelessly ordering a hot dog from the comfort of your seat may highlight the trivial side of Big Data, however the reality is that it is producing some huge benefits to the industry. The ability to harvest and analyse data to improve performance and prevent injury is an incredibly powerful tool, and one that professional sports organisations now use to great success. The developments in Formula 1 have revealed the inner workings of the sport, giving value to even the smallest of details and captivating a whole new audience in the process. Even fans are benefiting from the knock-on effects, gaining a much more detailed, up-close and personalised view of the sport they love.

There may still be a fear of change in the sports industry when it comes to the power of technology and Big Data, but many are coming round to its potential. History has already shown us that those who are willing to accept, rather than appose a new way of thinking are the first to benefit. After all the greatest stories in sport are written by those who break convention and pioneer a new way of thinking to defy all odds. 

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