How Big Data Is Changing Football on and off the Field

Big data is rapidly transforming the way we think, work and play. It is helping enterprises use their data to improve their processes, recognize anomalies and better connect with customers. The power of data is changing everything, often without our realizing it is happening. Case in point: football (and fantasy football in particular).

While most sports fans probably think baseball—and more precisely, Moneyball—when considering sports and data, there is a quiet data revolution that has been percolating in the world of football for some time. Data is driving player training, play calling and staffing.

"When I played football, I was one of those guys, I thought it was all about just sweat and tears," says NFL legend and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, former wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers.

Big Data and Football

"I mean just going hardcore every day. But with the new technology that they have out there now, with the wearable technology, you could be smarter. It's going to monitor your heart. It's also going to tell you the distance that you have run and also it's going to tell you the calories and stuff like that," says Rice. "So now you have trainers that can design a fitness program that's going to be conducive to you, where you can prevent injuries and do all that stuff. I didn't do it that way, but I think the guys should take advantage of that."

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Teams are also using big data technology to guide their decision-making on the field. For instance, by tracking personnel formations, run-pass distributions by field segment and repeated and successful play tendencies, teams can determine which areas of the field are leading to greater success. They can then call plays that target those areas of the field.

Big Data Transforms the Television Viewing Experience

Perhaps one of the most noticeable effects of big data has been the transformation of the television viewer experience. Sensors all over the field are constantly streaming data that allow broadcasters to instantly show viewers the line of scrimmage and first down line.

The system requires highly accurate 3D maps of the field, the capability to sense the movement of cameras and their orientation all over the field and accept data streams from them all simultaneously and to sense when objects—including players and referees—cross those lines so the lines aren't painted over them.

"Instant replay, back in the day when I played, it was slow," Rice adds. "It was so slow that the team that had the ball, it took away the momentum from that team. Now you look at instant replay, it's so much faster and it's going to ensure that the officials make the right call at the right time. Look at tennis, what's going on with tennis. They have cameras that can follow the trajectory of the ball and also sensors on the line that can determine if the ball hit the line or if it went long."

Fantasy Football Gains From Big Data

To top it off, data is driving new levels of customer engagement by transforming fantasy football.

"I think it's really driven by the cost of the technology," says Boyd Davis, vice president and general manager of the Datacenter Software Division at Intel, who recently participated in a panel discussion hosted by Intel on big data and football.

"If you look at the pace of innovation that Intel has driven, it drives the cost of computing down. That's allowed the organizations that provide these tools—the networks and other media outlets—to use fantasy football as a way to have a tighter engagement, a richer experience with their consumers. They provide the experience. It's free. The tools are getting ever more sophisticated and, in exchange, they get a tighter relationship and a closer brand relationship with their customers. So it's a win-win and the consumers are the ones who benefit."

Davis notes that while the technology is transforming the user experience, it is also somewhat counter-intuitively becoming more invisible.

"I think it's part of this whole trend where the access to data is driving richer and richer user experiences because there's more context, more personalization," he says. "And, of course, those richer experiences are creating the demand for ever more powerful and immersive devices."

Those devices, of course, then generate data. "We're in a kind of a new cycle," Davis says, "and I think the way it applies to football is going to be super exciting because it's going to be less about the technology getting in the way and more about the technology being in the background and having football, and, of course, the fantasy football overlay, be the experience."

Data Puts Fans in the Shoes of Coaches and Coordinators

Part of the appeal of fantasy football is putting fans in the shoes of football coaches — to fill out a football roster and then go head-to-head against an opponent to see whose picks perform the best. Sports information specialist STATS has been helping to drive the popularity of fantasy football, which now boasts 25 million participants.

STATS recently unveiled STATS Fan Advantage, an app for both iOS and Android devices that provides fantasy football players with data and the same user experience that professional teams use when accessing STATS data.

"We've collected over 92 data points per play for every NFL game over the last 30 years," says John Pollard, general manager of the Sports Solutions Group, a division of STATS. "Now those 92 data points could apply to any one of the 22 positions on the field. And that information we would traditionally sell and make available to our media clients at STATS and also our team operations clients. Well, certainly with the prevalence of fantasy football and the growth and interest in the game, we're now exposing that information to the fans through certain application capabilities. "

To bring fans closer to the game, Pollard says, STATs now gives you data to play your fantasy games—"the same type of data that some of your coaches and coordinators are using to manage their offenses and defenses in the NFL and college."

"Fantasy football is one of those situations where I think the fans want to be connected to the players," says Rice. "Every time I walked up to a fan, they would say to me: 'I have you on my fantasy football team.' And the thing about that is I didn't want to let them down."

"And think about this also," Rice says: "If I had all the data and all that stuff back when I played football—the 1,500 catches that I had, over 2,000 yards, 208 touchdowns—I think I probably would have just doubled everything if I had all of that data. It's just amazing the opportunities that these fans have, and also the players."

Today's Data Still Doesn't Fully Model On-the-Field Action

Of course, regardless of how good today's stats are, they don't provide a truly accurate model of what's actually happening on the football field.

"One thing that fantasy football does sometimes do is skew our everyday understanding of what's really important on the football field," says Kevin Meers, co-president of the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective, a student-run organization at Harvard University.

"Most fantasy football players can name you every starting wide receiver in the league, but ask them who Cameron Wake [defensive end with the Miami Dolphins] is and they're much less sure about one of the best pass rushers in the game," says Meers.

The stats also currently don't reflect the accomplishments of a player like J. J. Watt, defensive end for the Houston Texans, who in 2012 earned the nickname "J. J. Swatt" for his knack of swatting down balls at the line of scrimmage. He was also named the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year for his accomplishments (81 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 16 passes defended).

Data Will Allow Fantasy Football to Model Contributions of More Positions

But Pollard says Watt's performance has changed the way teams—both college and pro—are thinking about passes deflected at the line. And as metrics to measure that performance are formulated, he expects them to be exposed to fantasy football players, transforming the game even more.

"I would say that J. J. Watt's season certainly started to, in my interactions with teams at the pro and college level and also with media clients that I work with, put a higher premium on passes deflected at the line and the ability to disrupt the offense by creating challenges at the line of scrimmage," Pollard says.

"So now, going into the combine this past season [and] into the draft, there were a lot of professional teams that I work with looking at the metric that we calculate in college for passes deflected at the line," says Pollard.

"We talk about the potential of all this new information that we're making available — how it could change fantasy football. Well, right now, there's not a scoring assessment of passes deflected at the line," Pollard says. "Now, this could be a new way to calculate scores and include other players on the football team as part of the fantasy equation. Those are the types of things we're excited about at STATS in terms of the utility of our data but also how much more interesting we can make the game and getting everybody involved that's on the field."

For instance, Pollard says, fantasy football could start to take into account the contributions of offensive linemen.

"For the quarterback to have time to throw, there are a few people up front who have something to say about that and then for the receivers to run their full routes," he says. " If we can quantify the pocket time for a quarterback or how much pressure is alleviated based on their blocking schemes, you can start to apply it. Much like you can pick a special team unit for a team during your fantasy play, what if you could pick an offensive line unit and have scoring as a result of that?"

Other possibilities include a "grit quotient," which would measure the ability of players to make clutch plays when it really counts.

"I do think there are some teams that are more analytically inclined in terms of modeling, predictive modeling and accumulating historical information where they would have their own black box numerical value that they might call a grit factor or a toughness factor or a money factor, meaning, OK, a clutch catch versus just an everyday first down catch," Pollard says.

"Not all catches are created equal. Not just touchdowns versus a normal reception, but is it a first down conversion? Is it a first down conversion when the game is in the balance with X amount of time on the clock? As of now, I think you're seeing that in a small way at the NFL level, and I think you'll probably see in the next couple of years a prevalence of that. We're certainly participating in helping teams leverage our assets to create those equations," Pollard says.

Fantasy Football Driving Democratization of Football Data

Some might worry that a greater focus on data and stats — the sort of thing generally associated with baseball rather than football — will make the sport more about juggling numbers than blood, sweat and tears on the gridiron. But Davis and Pollard disagree.

"I would argue that it adds to the human element, not takes it away," Davis says. "The reality is, when a limited few have access to data and the tools to manage data, then their advantage is in the data and the tools. When we can democratize the technology and have it be available to everybody for free, well, all of a sudden, then, it's a level playing field and it's about human ingenuity and judgment. As the players and the coaches get the data on the field, then it's about their performance. It's not about an edge from data. So I think democratizing data is great."

"Teams, even the football players themselves and obviously the decision-makers, are interested in technology because they appreciate how much the technology can make their life more efficient and effective," Pollard adds.

As is the case with all uses of big data, the true value comes not only from the data but in the capability to analyze it. The power comes from helping teams manage and use the data and use the data, Pollards says. "How do these large columns and spreadsheets and tables look visually so a player, coach or personnel evaluator can interpret the data and apply that knowledge? We always like to say that the collection of data and the management of data is a science, but the true synthesizing of that data and implementing the knowledge that you derive from it, that's an artistic thing. It increases the human element."

Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for CIO.com. Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Thor at tolavsrud@cio.com

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