by Thor Olavsrud

10 Ways Big Data Is Changing the Business of Sports

Sep 23, 20146 mins
AnalyticsBig Data

Advances in capturing, storing and analyzing data are revolutionizing every aspect of sports, from training to broadcasting to fan engagement. Here are just a few examples of the ways big data is changing sports.

Whether we talk about football, car racing or sailing, advances in the capture, storage and analysis of data are affecting just about every aspect of sports. Data allows athletes to train better and more effectively and it allows teams to alter their in-game decision-making based on what they’re seeing. It is also changing the way broadcasters produce sports entertainment and the way teams and broadcasters engage with fans. Here are just a few of the ways big data is changing the business of sports.

Game Day Analysis

Like other businesses, sports teams strive to make better decisions faster. Coaching staff, scouts and players are leveraging analytics to better understand the performance on their own teams as well as that of the opposition, whether it’s pinpointing how a cyclist breaks out of the pack or how a football player moves against a particular opponent. Even mid-game, NFL teams use data to pinpoint success rates of plays in different areas of the field, allowing them to adjust plans on-the-fly based on-field position. Additionally, all plays are recorded, time-stamped and tagged with metadata to allow coaches and players to easily analyze them later.

Wearable Technology and Biometrics

The data for that game-day analysis isn’t solely coming from video. Advances in sensors are providing a mountain of new data. For instance, NFL players will wear sensors in hopes of gaining data to help augment the stadium experience, and trainers are already using wearables to monitor athletes’ performances and better design training regimens. While sensors and biometric monitoring devices will not be perfected for this season, the goal is to leverage data from live games for the future in many ways. For example, motion sensors in football helmets may play a key role in determining when a player may have suffered a concussion. The data could lead to better ways to protect against that injury in the future.

Motion Capture

Motion capture technology has been around for a while now, but is receiving new attention in sports as it can be used to track the motion data of players — while playing — for later use to build avatars or “games of the game.”

“Eventually, that data could be used to generate video games based on how players move together in events,” says Jason Danielson, media industry lead with NetApp, which helps many professional sports organizations with data storage and big data solutions. “That data may be even more valuable than the video itself. Imagine fantasy football as a video game.”

Broadcast Sports Production

Data and analytics have long been at the center of broadcast sports production, providing commentators with relevant, real-time data — replays, game data facts, etc. — that helps spectators engage with the event.

“This includes things like hockey puck tracking to make following the puck easier, or using computer graphics to help better illustrate the action the America’s Cup,” says Danielson. “To the extent that this data sent by various sensors can be brought into the video broadcast, it makes it more sticky.”

Broadcast and Digital Distribution

Big data is also playing an increasingly important role not just in broadcast production, but in broadcast and digital distribution. Multi-platform distribution of content and the use of social media and consumer-generated content in broadcast uses metrics to determine what is “hitting home” and how to charge advertisers. This data can be especially useful for large sporting events, such as the 2014 World Cup, which was broadcast in 192 countries and territories, with 3.2 billion viewers.

Auctioning Advertising Spots

Broadcasters are also leveraging live-streaming, social media and consumer-generated content to understand their audience in a much deeper way.

“You can’t talk about distribution without talking about ad revenue, whether it’s a 30-second television spot or a banner on a social media site,” Danielson says. “What they care about is targeted advertising. If they know who’s coming to that site to view that content, they can go sell that demographic to their advertisers. If they can provide demographics on who is viewing this or following the Twitter feeds, they can charge more. It’s all about maximizing revenue.”

Fan Engagement

Along with substantial growth in broadcast coverage, mobile technology is giving fans ever more data-sharing capabilities, ranging from tweeting about their experiences to creating their own live video. At the recent 2014 World Cup, spectator bandwidth reached 12.6 TB and 73,531 final match attendees shared a one-minute HD video. Organizations are capitalizing on this trend to create engagement with fans by providing apps and social hubs. Some sophisticated organizations are even leveraging real-time social analytics to make better decisions about provisioning for live-streaming.

Tour de France Phones It in

The Tour de France is a three-week long bicycle race with a fanatical following that stretches across 2,000 miles of rural roadways. Broadcasters can’t afford to get cameras everywhere they would like, but new technology is allowing for better coverage by leveraging photos and videos captured by fans on their mobile devices.

“No network can put cameras out across an entire  race,” Danielson says. “But now we’ve got systems where that consumer-generated content can be uploaded to a broadcaster’s site. This technology is new and challenging. It’s one thing for 1,000 phones to shoot footage, but the question is how quickly can you get it to a broadcast center and transcode it into a format that broadcast can work with?”

World Cup in HD

Four years ago, at the last World Cup, 4K video (or ultra HD) was a minimal experiment. But it turned into a full-game production in Brazil this year as it was made available as a stream for an entire game with a full regimen of cameras and a production truck outfitted with 4K equipment. A 4K video frame has four times the pixels of an HD frame, meaning that four times the data is required to store, stream and process it.

“4K has been around for a long time, it just hasn’t been used in television much,” Danielson says. “But now we’re starting to see it in television and people are talking about sporting events being the key use.”

Formula One

Formula One  is one of the most popular sports in the world, and one of the most data-driven. Teams rely on real-time information to make enhancements to cars and in-race strategies. For example, for every lap driven by the Sauber F1 team’s car, 100 sensors produce 20 MB to 30 MB of data, including information about the tires, engine, temperature and fuel use. The pit team uses that data to make immediate decisions.

“A lot of the sport comes down to when you do your pit stops,” Danielson says. “Getting that pit stop to happen at the right time is huge. When it comes to real-time analysis, Formula One is way more advanced than what’s going on in other sports.”