Big Data in the Sports Industry

December 23, 2015
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Imagine the amount of data that could be collected and used for personal improvement if every professional athlete wore a small wristband-like monitoring device.

Imagine the amount of data that could be collected and used for personal improvement if every professional athlete wore a small wristband-like monitoring device.

We currently know these devices as “watches” that can be used for a myriad of daily tasks. These small pieces of technology have, until now, mainly been used on a consumer level to basically act as a smaller smartphone. However, the technology available in these mini-computers have the ability to track everything that a person, or in this case athlete, does. Heart rate, form, number of steps taken, and even the precise speed of athletes can be tracked – we would know everything that makes a superior athlete so great. This type of big data usage could potentially act as a recommendation engine and predict a plan of action for an athlete based on their performance.

But what does this mean for sports as we know it? If we collected this data would others be able to replicate the “formula” of a particular athlete, and would we want them to? Questions like this are starting to arise as some professional athletes are already tracking their own data with sometimes little knowledge about what to do with it.

Personal Stats – Personal Property?

Upon immediate introduction of this technology, one of many issues that arises is whether or not it would be legal or ethical to share this information with the world (or even solely with other athletes or teams). The athlete who chooses to record their own data has the right to reserve their collected data for their own personal use, but many coaches are instigating the tracking of statistics for their players and not the other way around. Players certainly already feel a heavy burden to perform and “sell” themselves as a brand or product. The introduction of this technology opens an entirely new level of brand awareness. If this information is released to coaches and even possibly the public, what would that mean for the player’s reputation?

Most athletes are old enough that this type of technology seems new and possibly daunting. Some are not so open to having their every move tracked. This defense does seem completely logical, but other players are much more open to the idea because it could give them a “competitive advantage” knowing where they might be able to improve if they can keep the information for themselves and/or their support systems. Over the last 10 years athletes have already begun wearing their own tracking devices in order to improve their performance as well as to try and avoid serious injuries that could put their careers at risk. 

Big Data Used for Health & Safety

Crew chiefs, which work for the Formula One auto races, may want to use the data to make sure their drivers remain safe on the course. A constant feed of updates loaded directly to their smartphone or tablet allows a coach the ability to maintain an eye on the driver at all times. If the crew chief suddenly sees a change in statistics they would have authority to call that driver off of the track for a short pit stop in order to re-group or pull them off of the track permanently if they feel their health is in danger.

Some fans of racing sports seem to think that due to the expertise of these professional drivers their risk of injury is quite low. Jack Swarbrick, the athletic director of Notre Dame, stated, “but the last few formula one races I watched, no one passed anybody. Everyone has perfect data”. Anthony Davidson, a former Formula One driver even said, “I feel a driver should be challenged and should be punished for mistakes. It’s what makes people follow the sport in quite a gruesome way—it’s the danger, racing drivers should be heroes”. Does the rest of the world feel the same? If the risk is potentially removed from sports, is it still a “sport”?

Would Big Data Ruin Sports?

During the 2014 World Cup multiple companies used the same big data information in order to correctly predict the winners of the cup. Two of the three companies had 100% correct predictions. Microsoft and Baidu were able to determine 15 out of 15 match outcomes. If this data can be used to such an accurate degree, some might argue that sports will ultimately become null in void.

If used in this capacity, would spectating and even fantasy leagues become so calculated that any intuition or educated guesses are just too accurate? Of course the current data collected is not yet available to the common person, but it is a possibility for the future. There is no doubt that sports as we know it are changing with the introduction of this technology. Athletics are certainly moving into the future and clearly there is a possibility that they won’t ever be the same. The question of the hour for sports fans is now, “are we ready for it?”

photo credit: COD Newsroom/Flickr

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