Big Data and Analytics In Sports: A Game Changer

May 28, 2014
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If there is one area in which big data is literally guaranteed to be a game-changer, it’s sports.

Sports have for a long time been accompanied by a wealth of statistics – what’s different today is the amount of data and the multitude of ways that we have to analyze and interpret that data – and put it to work.

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If there is one area in which big data is literally guaranteed to be a game-changer, it’s sports.

Sports have for a long time been accompanied by a wealth of statistics – what’s different today is the amount of data and the multitude of ways that we have to analyze and interpret that data – and put it to work.

That could be to boost performance on the field, decrease injuries and recovery times, or simply make the game a more entertaining spectacle for the fans.

But the volume of data is going through the stratosphere too – every day companies, teams or individuals are coming up with ways to capture more data, and record more information about what’s happening on pitches and fields around the world.

This year Stats launched their SportVu service in every NBA stadium in America – installing six cameras at each location to accurately datafy the movements of every player and ball on the pitch.

This and similar projects mean that most major teams now employ data specialists, dedicated to interpreting the facts and figures and making sure their teams get the most benefit from them.

Athletes can be monitored with sensors tracking every element of their performance from their heart rate to their location and their routine saliva tests, and all this data analyzed to provide coaches with clues to help them spot the superstars of the future. The athletes themselves can gain a better understanding of the way their own bodies act under the stress of competition, and use this to fine-tune their own preparations.

The insights will help teams better understand the factors for success and the hurdles that elite athletes will have to overcome to make it to the top of their game. Daily workouts, performance in competition and injury rates (as well as subsequent rehabilitation times) can all be improved through the intelligence that big data provides.

Oakland Athletic’s mission to redefine their game through stats and analytics is well known thanks to the book and film Moneyball, but that wasn’t the beginning by a long shot.

Decades earlier, in the late 1940s, a retired RAF wing commander began to make notes from his stadium seat as he watched his beloved Swindon Town play a frustratingly bad game of soccer.

What he discovered was that most goals were scored within three touches of the ball. This had not been noticed before. However when he approached the team with his findings, they were not particularly interested.

Convinced that his findings had the potential to improve the game, he approached rivals Bradford Town, who decided to refocus on their long-ball game. That season the team reversed their fortunes and avoided what many had considered an inevitable relegation to the lower leagues.

Today big data has also found a use in the boardroom politics that are part of every major televised sport in the 21st century. NBA commissioner Adam Silver told a conference that sports analytics had played a big part in ending the lockout which preceded the start of the 2012 season.

After the dispute caused by the ending of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement was settled, Silver told the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference that “The analytical people are more important than the lawyers” in resolving the situation.

It’s not all about the pros though – amateur sportsmen are starting to find they can save money on personal trainers by taking advantage of the many apps available for smartphones designed to monitor performance, so it can be datafied, analyzed and improved.

The popular Sports Tracker, for example, allows you to monitor your workout and then share that data online, where it can be compared against that of friends.

Nike’s Golf 360 app is one of the most impressive apps for monitoring personal performance. As well as acting as a trainer with real-time advice you can upload your scores to online leaderboards and compete for the top positions.

And standalone devices such as the Nike Fuelband, which tracks your movement and converts it into a score, prompting you to set targets and continuously increase your activity levels, are flooding onto the market.

Perhaps the biggest winners, though, are the fans. Games can be scrutinised in greater depth than ever before, thanks to the reams of statistics published on the internet.

IBM’s Slam Tracker provides point-by-point real time analytics of tennis championships, integrated with social media “sentiment” metrics, designed to allow fans to compare how a player’s performance on court is affected by their support off court.

Commentators have reams of statistics with which to entertain the audiences during slow moment, and complementing their professional patter with crowd-sourced opinion from armchair experts on Twitter is becoming standard practice.

At this point, practically no sport remains untouched by the game-changing hand of big data, and teams or athletes who ignore the advantages it brings are in danger of dropping the ball. 

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Finally, please check out my other posts in The Big Data Guru column and feel free to connect with me via TwitterLinkedInFacebookslideshare and The Advanced Performance Institute.