How Professional Sport Is Keeping Fit With Big Data

Imagine if it were possible to predict the outcome of major sporting events. Or protect athletes from career-threatening injuries. Even to root out corruption in the beautiful game.

Big data analytics have revolutionised modern marketing and commerce; now it looks as though they could change the face of professional sport.

Creating Superman

Rugby Union has already profited from the so-called ‘digital revolution’ by analysing data concerning players’ health to predict and prevent injuries.

The principal behind the technology is very simple. The body reveals much about its condition that can be plugged into a big data set, with such variables as irregular heart-rates and elevated core temperature underlining health complaints that could precipitate injury.

The man responsible for this innovation, IBM’s Sam Seddon, explains:

“We’re working to catch information about the players so you can understand what their heart rate is like during a training session. What you can then do is address their levels of performance…and stop them training if you think they might be susceptible to an illness.”

Consequently, training routines can be tailored to each player’s physical endurance level.

But the value of big data analysis begins before training; enhanced statistics could also transform the recruitment process. The Sports Office predicts that managers and coaches may, in future, be able to utilise statistical models to determine which young players are likely to perform at a professional level.

Reactive Decision Making and Analysing Fan Behaviour

Of course, the Holy Grail of big data analysis is the kind of real-time, in-match optimisation that could see coaches paying more attention to their laptops than the pitch. Biometric analysis could provide this level of detail, allowing managers to turn real-time stats into actionable insights.

One brand, STATS, claimed to have developed technology that can provide do just that. STATS have patented a visual tracking system called SportVu that “collects the location data of every player and the ball 25 times per second throughout an entire game…it achieves this using a series of strategically placed high definition cameras around the stadium.”

However, Digital Trends is dubious about the value of SportVu in its current form: “Sure, there’s a ton of data we already measure, like shooting percentages, rebounds, blocks, but these metrics paint a low resolution picture. Stats like points per game or steals, while useful, only tell us the destination while completely ignoring the journey…For proper scientific evaluation, we require context.”

Nevertheless, the potential of this tool should not be underestimated. In fact, similar insights are already utilised by videogame developers behind such popular series as Football Manager and FIFA to create a more realistic simulation of matches. These games are noted as providing an increasingly sophisticated and convincing gauge of player behaviour.

The user/consumer-optimisation strategies of ecommerce are also beginning to shape the way brands profit from major sporting events. For instance, during the London Olympics, NBC’s Billion Dollar Research Lab analysed the viewing habits of more than 50,000 participants. Their findings provided insights that were worked into advertising sales pitches, allowing NBC to advise advertisers on how and when to target particular demographics.

In future, such insights could be used to sharpen targeted ticket marketing and ensure that advertising messages are disseminated to take advantage of peak social media activity.

Beating the Bookies and Fighting Corruption

All this goes without mentioning the impact of big data analysis on sports betting, where its potential value is already well understood.

Several brands, including RunningBall and OptaTrends, bring a scientific perspective to match prediction, using sophisticated analysis software in tandem with big data sets to call the outcome of matches.

OptaTrends has recently been integrated by the UK’s largest odds comparison site, Oddschecker, as a value-added tool for customers. Jesse Learmonth, President of bet Smart Media (the company behind OptaTrands) is loath to describe his service as a ‘cheat’ that provides users with an unsurmountable edge, commenting:

“We are fervent believers that every bettor should have access to tools and content that helps [sic] them make more confident betting decisions, whether that be on their desktops, tablets, or mobiles…We like to think of Opta Trends as a ‘confidence engine’ for bettors.”

From the bookies’ perspective, big data analysis could provide a solution to the match-fixing epidemic that is plaguing football. Firms such as Sports Radar harvest data to identify unusual spikes in betting patterns.  On November 27th 2012, over £1 million was staked on a low-key, Conference South fixture between Welling and Billericay – more than the amount wagered on a Barcelona match at the same time – prompting a match-fixing investigation.

Big Data and the Destiny of Professional Sport

Evidently, Big Sport and Big Data have a shared destiny.

Already, complex data sets are being used to improve player performance, boost ticket sales and weed out corruption. The power of big data may soon become inexorably linked with sport, to the point that every facet of professional sport will be mathematically optimised.

What next? Cybernetics? Genetic engineering? Watch this space…


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