We are at the dawn of the data revolution in sports

We are at the dawn of the data revolution in sports


The impact and value of game and training data analytics and their application to the sports we love have recently come into question. Kevin Seifert of ESPN wrote an article titled “NFL coaches skeptical on benefits of chip-generated game-day data.” Earlier this year, Greg Haff, president of the National Strength & Conditioning Association, said at a conference that “because there hasn’t been overwhelming success, some of the coaches are growing skeptical of the sports scientist. … I think we’re at a crossroads.” And recently there was a Wall Street Journal article titled “The Downside of Baseball’s Data Revolution.”

All industries experience growing pains, and sports data analytics is no different. Nonetheless, they are here to stay given fans’ desire for data-driven storytelling, and the fact that the data provides insights not only into what just happened, but also into how and why it happened. Instead of Odell Beckham Jr.’s famous one-handed catch being simply described as a spectacular 43-yard touchdown, imagine the story providing insights into Beckham’s speed, his separation from the defensive back, the length and velocity of the throw, and the angle at which the catch was made. Such insights will increasingly enhance the fan experience across a multitude of platforms, improve tactical coaching applications, and allow for greater effectiveness in managing athletes’ performance.

To refute those questioning sports data analytics, the industry needs to restore confidence and generate growth through leadership focused on three initiatives: Integrity, Innovation and Insights.

Data-driven storytelling could provide a wealth of information about spectacular plays.

The marketplace has seen a proliferation of solutions making all sorts of sometimes-empty claims, prohibiting a unified view of the meaning and utility of data. Contributing to this situation have been (1) a “sales-first” approach by some solution providers, and (2) a lack of accuracy and precision in much of the technology currently being offered. Too many vendors are marketing-oriented, focused on convincing clients that their particular product is the “secret sauce” that will lead to ultimate success. In places where vendors over-promise, customers are growing skeptical of the technology and data. In parallel with these outsized claims is the fact that today many solutions just aren’t that accurate. Very few solutions have undergone independent “ground-truth” testing with video validation. Data integrity has thus become one of the central issues in the ongoing league/player debate over whether players should be required to wear devices, how the data is shared and used, and ultimately who owns the data. For the future, the industry needs to push for a greater degree of data integrity, the establishment of independent testing organizations/procedures, and eventually the creation of industry performance standards.

Too often today we see companies pushing technology solutions in search of a problem, rather than designing solutions to meet specific customer needs. This has led to many of the Integrity issues noted above and the attempt to use solutions ill-equipped to provide the most relevant types of data. For example, the common claim to provide “player tracking” data is poorly understood. It’s merely a catch-all term that needs to be segmented as follows:

Location Data Solutions: These solutions are geared specifically to commercial/fan engagement initiatives and do not provide insights into micro-movements. These positioning systems must evolve from one-dimensional systems (strictly optical or RFID) to hybrid systems in the future.

Player-Performance Data Solutions: Commonly referred to as “wearables,” these solutions provide keen insight into micro-movements and are the basis for player performance analysis. Companies in this space need to focus on accuracy and precision improvements, and the development of summary metrics providing deeper insights.

Health-Wellness Data Solutions: Solutions focused on providing insights into sleep, nutrition, and general overall fitness. This category includes heart-rate monitoring devices, and strives to answer many questions related to human performance and seeks to transform data into actionable intelligence.

In elite sports, we are still in our infancy when it comes to understanding each of these areas and their impact on performance, while at the same time solutions geared to answering these questions are proliferating. As a result, in the future it will be incumbent on leagues, clubs and players to segment their data needs among commercial/fan engagement products, coaching and player-performance products, and health-wellness products, and choose the right partners that are going to invest in technological advancements over time.

To date, much focus has been placed on gathering and creating “big data.” However, without the proper evaluation tools, the richness of the data is not being exploited and is leading to customer frustration. The focus should be on agile data versus big data, providing digestible data to the customer that features “snackable” insights and allows one to see how the data can be used effectively. In concert, there needs to be a movement from descriptive data to predictive analytics and the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning to glean richer insights from the data. Finally, sports organizations need to work more closely with the research community to bring in-depth science to the process of developing successful products and creating actionable data.

We are at the dawn of the data revolution in sports. In order to propel the value of the data from a fan, coach and player standpoint, there needs to be a push for greater Integrity, Innovation and Insights. This will in turn lead to the creation of new content for fan engagement; the development of tools allowing for increased use of analytics by coaches as they seek competitive advantages; and a deeper understanding of peak player performance.

Remember, the ubiquitous “first-and-ten line” we know today was actually conceived in 1978. It wasn’t introduced until 1998. Good things take time, and thoughtful innovation.

Eric Petrosinelli is a sports industry executive with more than 20 years of experience across media, sponsorships, consumer products, technology and analytics.

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