Data in Sport

The last 25 years have seen many elite sports  ride a wave of increasing broadcast revenues to form part of an international entertainment industry worth trillions of pounds. There’s no escaping the fact that modern sport is big business.

As more money has poured into the industry, the stakes at the elite level have risen to precipitous heights. Where once teams could comfortably absorb seasonal fluctuations in their on-field fortunes, many are now faced with the prospect of financial difficulties should they fall short of expectations.

Delivering performance advantage

As the business of sport has become increasingly consequential and inextricably tied to team performance, clubs have become more willing to invest in the technology and expertise that has emerged to deliver crucial marginal gains.

Driven by rapid advancements in technology, by the mid-1990s teams across a range of sports were beginning to explore the potential of the performance data that was gradually being made available by nascent analysis companies such as Prozone. Having begun with basic video analysis on grainy VHS tapes, performance analysis has since developed into a multi-faceted hi-tech industry designed to support clubs with detailed information across key strategic areas such as game intelligence, tactical profiling, athlete monitoring, player recruitment and asset management.

Where clubs once based key strategic decisions on subjective judgements alone, the proliferation of performance technology and data analytics has enabled a more informed approach to both the business and sporting sides of the game. Today, teams at all levels of professional sport are investing in performance analysis as they seek to apply intelligence and creativity to derive a deeper level of insight.

However, in a situation that will be familiar to many businesses, sports clubs are typically data rich but time poor. In an effort to enhance the efficiency and intelligence of their analysis, clubs are increasingly turning to analytical experts such as data scientists to maximise the effect data can have across all aspects of their organisation.

The recent establishment of Prozone’s Performance.LAB reflects this move towards a more bespoke and consultative approach to data, particularly within the world of football. A team of data scientists with their own individual areas of expertise, the Performance.LAB consults with teams to build analytical models designed to resolve the specific issues faced by each club.

Working across areas such as talent identification, player recruitment, athlete monitoring and game intelligence, the considered application of analytics now influences all aspects of a club operations as data is used to support informed decision-making at all levels. Detailed analysis is not itself the difference between winning and losing, but it has become a cornerstone of best practice with regard to building an efficient and diligence sports organisation.

Enhancing officiating and fan engagement

Of course, it is not only clubs that benefit from the exploitation of data and technology. Many sports are now using technology across a broad range of areas, with the enhancement of officiating and the engagement of fans being two key priorities.

Football is gradually rolling out goal line technology across major leagues and competitions around the world as it seeks to improve refereeing standards, while Hawkeye and the Decision Referral System (DRS) are well established in tennis and cricket respectively. As technology continues to advance in these areas, it is likely that we will see it become an even more prominent feature of officiating, with data likely to play an increased role in the monitoring of refereeing performance.

In terms of the fan experience, there has never been more sports data available for public consumption. Many broadcasters now make data-driven analysis a key component of their coverage, with statistics an integral part of the fan experience. Enabling supporters to build informed opinions and more actively engage with the nature of their team’s performance, a plethora of web platforms and mobile apps such as MLB At Bat and tennis’ SlamTracker have sprung up to quench the public thirst for ever more detailed information. As sports are demonstrating, Big Data is not just the preserve of the business community; it has quickly become a major part of wider culture too.

Lessons for business

The application of advanced data in sport has come a long way in a relatively short space of time, but there is no denying that performance analysis is still in its developmental stages. The work being conducted by football clubs and data companies is continually driving the field forward, but there remains enormous potential for significant future growth.

That being said, there are lessons the business community can learn from the way in which sports have embraced the vast potential of data. Rather than viewing data as a burden or a threat to conventional wisdom, the sports world has generally been quick to adopt the technologies and expertise that enable a more diligent approach to strategy both on the field and in the boardroom.

Rather than complex strategic thinking or over-complicating the product that is delivered to fans, data and technology have transformed sports for the better, facilitating more rational decision-making within football clubs and engaging supporters on a previously unprecedented scale. If your business is hesitant to follow sport’s lead and fully embrace the potential of analytics, now is the time to change your approach and make data a more prominent part of your organisation. The possibilities for internal development and enhanced customer engagement are simply too exciting to miss.