Analytics and big data have potential in many industries, but they are on the cusp of scoring major points in sports. From coaches and players to front offices and businesses, analytics can make a difference in scoring touchdowns, signing contracts or preventing injuries.
Coaches, players and the leading minds in sports came together to discuss the potential of analytics and big data last week at the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Here are eight ways data analytics can improve efficiency, accuracy and profitability in sports. Who knows? Big data may even eliminate blown calls one day.
1. Better Precision in the Strike Zone
In baseball, Pitchf/x technology from Sportvision has been installed in all 30 Major League Baseball Stadiums to track pitches during games. Sportvision has a suite of other technologies for baseball, football and motor sports. However, nothing has replaced the judgment calls umpires have to make at the plate in real-time, says Hank Adams, CEO of Sportvision. "Sportvision technology is being adapted to use for referees and umpires. We can very accurately determine if something is a strike or a ball."
For now, umpires still rely on the naked eye to call a strike or ball and until the technology or baseball rules evolve, catchers like Jose Molina will still be able to game the system.
[Slideshow: How Technology Gives the Sports Industry a Winning Edge ]
2. More Resources for Analytics Buffs
On the fan side, statistic enthusiasts have a slew of websites they can visit to see breakdowns of their favorite players and slices and dices of specific games and plays.
"We take that data and organize it to make it understandable to average people. We can see how pitchers performance has changed in a certain game. Or pull up a map of what an umpire's strike/ball calls are and see the strike zone's shape and size," says Dan Brooks, founder and lead developer of BrooksBaseball.net, a website that makes sports statistics digestible for sports fans.
3. Data From Wearable Technologies
Adidas has a system called miCoach that works by having players attach a wearable device to their jerseys. Data from the device shows the coach who the top performers are and who needs rest. It also provides real-time stats on each player, such as speed, heart rate and acceleration.
That kind of real-time data could help trainers and physicians plan for better training and conditioning. Matt Hasselbeck, a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, says he's in favor of technology that helps with player safety. "[By]checking hydration levels or tracking hits to the head, we could start collecting that data now to make sports safer."
4. Live on the Field Data Collection
Currently, lots of data is collected manually during games and sports competitions. But much of the live data moves so fast that it's a moment lost in time. One company trying to log more of the live data is Zebra Technologies. The company makes RFID tags, as part of their MotionWorks Sports Solution, that attach to equipment, balls and players to track movement, distance and speed. The tags blink 25 times per second and deliver data in 120 milliseconds. Another company, SportVU has six cameras in each NBA arena that collect data on the movements on every player and movements of the basketball 25x per second.
5. Predictive Insight Into Fan Preferences
Analytics can advance the sports fans' experience as teams and ticket vendors compete with the at-home experience -- the better they know their fans, the better they can cater to them.
"It's about knowing when a fan is interested in an opposing team coming to town or whether a 4 p.m. game is not too late for them. It's about hitting them with that communication when they are in the decision mindset and giving season ticket holders more incentive to keep coming and retain their tickets," says John Forese, senior vice president and general manager of LiveAnalytics, a LiveNation data, analytics and research company.
Many sports teams, such as the New England Patriots, are also trying to predict the wants and needs of fans with team specific mobile apps that provide special content, in-seat concession ordering and bathroom wait times.
6. Career Opportunities for the Blended Sports Fan and Numbers Whiz
Bryan Colangelo, former general manager and president of the Toronto Raptors, says teams should hire data analytics specialists in front offices to handle the data transmitted from new technologies and devices. "There are mountains of opportunity in analytics now. If you're not spending $250K and having two to three people dedicated to it full time, you're probably too light on it."
Paraag Marathe, president of the San Francisco 49ers says data needs to be digestible so players and coaches can use it make split-second decisions. "If [data] is not synthesized in a way that a QB or coach can use it, then it's useless."
7. Influence Coaching Decisions
Data analysts could help deliver the most important data sets to coaches for better results on the field. Brian Burke, founder of the website Advanced NFL Stats, says data could help coaches and players make more informed decisions that could decide wins and losses.
"In football, the low hanging fruit in analytics is in coaches' decision making. Things like punting on 4th and 1 used to make sense but maybe not anymore," Burke says. "Offenses are better and it's easier to get 2 point conversions."
8. Build Arguments for Contract Negotiations
Marathe of the 49ers says good data insights can make or break a player being hired or a coach being fired. "In contract negotiations, both sides are using data and everyone is trying to find evidence that supports whatever contract demand they want to make. They can slice it in any way that helps them." In fact, Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association says analytics played a role in helping end the player lockout in 2012.