Statistical Data Analysis

Sport and tech converge to aid performance and fans

A fascinating SAP- and Cisco-backed conference in London recently covered how technology and sport are converging at all angles from athletic performance to the fan experience. This transformation made me think of how sport has changed in my lifetime.

I grew up in soccer-daft Newcastle in the north-east corner of England, an area starved of trophies but where supporters have the faith of zealots despite serially demonstrable proof that the footballing gods make only fleeting visits to Tyneside. The local football writer for The Times of London goes so far as to call himself “chronicler of misery” on his Twitter account.

I went to Newcastle games at St. James’ Park from a young age from the early 1970s but I have never seen the team lift a proper trophy. Going to football in those days was more of a preparation for inevitable disappointments in life than thrill.

Athletic performance? The players were regulars in the local pubs and clubs and often stopped off for fish and chips on the way back from games. Many smoked too and the nearest thing to technology was a stopwatch to time sprints in training.

The fan experience? We stood, cowering under my mother’s umbrella as cold fronts and squally rain from the North Sea soaked our parkas. The scent of beer on men’s breath – Newcastle Brown (or Amber) Ale, Exhibition or Best Scotch –hung heavy, mingling with cigarette smoke and the dubious odour of hotdogs, burgers and boiled onions from Westlers carts outside.

In those days, clubs like Coventry City and Sunderland were seen as progressive for having a stadium clock. At Newcastle, to see the half-time scores on the scoreboard you needed the club programme to decode which game was which, or else you listened in to hear somebody’s transistor radio. There was a tannoy system blasting out The Osmonds and Bay City Rollers but the information society was thin on the ground - even if the request for visiting supporters to stay behind and await a ‘police escort’ received mocking jeers-cum-cheers.

That request was to stop the threat of hooligans lining up for trouble of course, but there were other horrors for us kids too: men urinating down rolled-up newspapers on the terraces, the human crush when Newcastle attacked. The fan experience was dismal indeed.

Today, things are better. Premier League players are pampered princes and receive constant monitoring. Most fans are seated and have smartphones serving up a banquet of facts and figures but still we’re only just touching what the true confluence of elite sport and technological research and development can deliver.

So what will be disruptive?

At the conference, Adam Silver of American basketball’s administrative body the NBA suggested several ways:

  • Wearables measuring every aspect of a player’s performance and providing a player’s view of what’s going on via streaming video cameras
  • Tracking of every step so we can analyse players’ favoured movements and tricks
  • Upsell and cross-sell vendor opportunities when fans are at games so, for example, discounted products are targeted at fans based on known preferences. Fans can get live feeds on the best route to the game, where they should park, stadium entrance locations and so on.
  • Ubiquitous access to see games from any seat position when online – even if you’re on the other side of the world and no longer “at the whim of some director”. And all in 4k or whatever state-of-the-art the experts develop next.
  • An ‘arms race’ between teams who will differentiate on the latest technology to improve selection, recruitment and tactics
  • VR views that give you access to players as if you’re with them – that’s huge for the “99.5% of people who will never set foot in an NBA arena”, Silver said. “I saw the 3D technology and that seemed faddish and didn’t amount to a lot but VR I think is going to be a game changer.”

Does this mean that sport turns into one big game of Moneyball where intuition is kicked into touch in favour of empirical data and predictive analytics though? Not at all, reckoned Silver.

“Teams have tilted too far to the analytics side,” he said. “[Player] behaviour isn’t always rational [and] intuition is back in. Intuition is really another form of analytics that’s being processed in your head. You may be presented with a set of data but you have to make a decision based on that - and it may be a hunch at the end of the day.”

There’s more to come. SAP GCO chief technology officer Irfan Khan for example suggests that wristband wearables are starting from a false premise and that other parts of the body will be able to deliver far more usable data for monitoring athletic performance.

“For you and I as consumers of technology the Fitbit is probably good enough but really doesn’t give you a lot of insight … the wrist is probably the worst place on your body to measure. Wearables themselves have to transition… maybe it’s your underwear and collecting data there - no smuttiness, but it gives you the best read-out: a bra for a lady or underwear for men.”

Things have come a long way but as international sports bodies seek to grow their presences in global markets there will be many more advances later in the game. The trophies will be bigger and shinier… let’s just hope one of them eventually goes to Newcastle United.


Also read:

Adidas a shoe in for 3D printing

Tampa Bay Lightning skate to where the puck is going with fan tech

Could a computer have discovered Arsenal legend Ian Wright?

No more cold burgers as teams target sports fans via data analytics


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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