Thursday 06 October 2016

Run, Data, run!
The use of analytics in sports

What a summer to be alive for sport fans: we have seen Cristiano Ronaldo’s moving tears during the Euro 2016 final; Vietnam’s first Olympic gold medal since it has joined the competition in 1952; Chris Froome winning this year’s edition of the Tour de France bringing him closer to the quintuple champions quartet; Vincenzo Nibali proudly don the pink jersey upon winning his second Giro d’Italia; and the Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s genuine excitement when learning her actual time, making her win the “enthusiasm medal”. And then we didn’t even talk about the six Olympic gold medals the Belgian team brought home!

Behind those glorious events though, something else quietly flourished; discreetly making its way into the game… Anyone who has watched the movie Moneyball probably remembers the plot, for the ones who have or does not here is a quick catch-up: Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics (casted by Brad Pitt) is highly upset by his team’s consecutive losses. He therefore proceeds (after some Hollywood ramblings) to hire Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Yale economics graduate with innovative thinking for assessing players' value based on sabermetrics. Brand proceeds by selecting players based almost exclusively on their on-base percentage (OBP). Ensues a tremendous success followed by movie-logic plot twists, etc.

A kick in the grass

While this movie has been released in 2011, the action takes place in 2001 (i.e. fifteen years ago). A lot had change in the analytics world since then, more and more athletes and teams resort to data to improve their game, natural skills as well as their fans’ experience. Analytics is not merely about business anymore, but rather about using big volumes of data to gain useful insight given a certain context; whatever the latter be.

The NBA with interactive statistics allowing fans to have instant access to the NBA’s entire history; Wimbledon with AI-driven analytics platform and its predictive process for relevant social media input; McLaren with measured car parameters providing data for analysis and drivers comparison; or the Mannschaft gaining insight into the tactics of teams to gain competitive advantage are just some examples to this.

Analytics have been widely incorporated in every sport branch; cameras, (GPS-) sensors and even wearable devices are used to collect data which is then analysed by growing analytics teams. These new pieces of information are precious as they gather important happenings, not only where the action is, but all around the field as well. Indeed, there are numerous influencing factors during a sporting event; the body movement during a swing, the wind strength and direction, the movements of the opponents, the amount of passes and tackles, etc. help building a comprehensive set of success measures. 

All it takes is all you’ve got

Whereas at first glance one can think these insights are only used to lead to triumph against competitors, it is also of great help for athletes’ health. Thanks to the information retrieved via their wearable devices and coupled with historical data it is possible to predict when a player is in a compromising posture or about to be injured. Coaches can also monitor their players’ eating habits, heart rates and general performance. This in turn saves the teams and athletes expensive recovery costs and time.

However, this new tactic for self- or team improvement may raise an ethical issue: is this fair towards the other athletes and teams? Can this be compared with drugs? Indeed, FIFA for a long time was opposed to the use of wearable devices during encounters.

While drugs are about improving your skills directly, using data to learn how to enhance your natural skills still requires action from the human-side.

Yet, what about athletes or teams that cannot afford such an investment? Surely, there are many ways of analysing data, from the more expensive to the more affordable; one can therefore argue that this technique is at hand for everyone.

Actions speak louder than coaches

Although another concern may rise, the more you are able to pay the better are your analyses; would this then lead to an even bigger gap between wealthy athletes and teams, and their less fortunate competitors doomed to remain in their shadow?

Analytics in the end are just an impulse, such as a coach. Some are granted (and/or can afford) for the best and some can unfortunately not. Just as coaches, analytics deliver insight on how one should improve itself; it is an external set of eye analysing players’ behaviour to give them tactics. In the end it still lays in the athletes’ hands and their skills to incorporate them the best they can; some are good at it some are less, therefore the human touch is still at the very centre of it. 

Defend ‘til the End

As analytics brings new perspective in sports, we can only imagine an increasing set of techniques in the future. Entire sport fields, courts and grounds being monitored allowing better referee decisions and thus minimising the human (judgment) mistakes; more connected objects such as shoes, balls, baseball bats, hockey sticks, paddles, etc. to provide information not only on the players’ condition but the objects behaviour regarding different circumstances, and of course an increased “user experience” for fans.

As stated above, associations such as NBA and Wimbledon are trying their utmost to increase fans’ satisfaction, as their revenues lie mostly in the latter. As a matter of fact, sports are nothing without fans to watch, cheer and obviously pay to see it. Giro d’Italia has, in that regard, launched its new app; right on time for the 2016 competition with a revamped look and new functionalities. According to their statistics, the digital media of the Giro reached nineteen million unique Facebook users, no less than fifty million views on Twitter and another fifty million pages visited on the web.

Real-time statistics are becoming more and more spread, yet as the future profiles at the horizon new ways of interacting with fans is emerging through the means of apps. Providing a near-stadium experience at fingers’ reach, improving events’ convenience, implementing new ways of getting in touch with athletes to increase fans’ devotion to their favourite team and/or athletes is the logical sequence of events.

Get your (data) Game on!

Whether one is pro or con the implication of analytics in sports, claiming that it is useless would be a delusion as it gives rise to a myriad of new opportunities. The future of data in sport is bright. Therefore, if you are eager to jump into it, now is the time.

Merve Gunaydin
BI Consultant

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