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Data Privacy and Security

Chris Froome hack shows how data analytics is eating sport

Team Sky has alleged that cycling performance data relating to Tour de France leader Chris Froome was hacked. If that is indeed the case then it’s part of a long, dark tradition in sport of gaining useful information - and as more sports depend on data the situation is only likely to get worse.

A Kenya-born Briton, Froome is Sky’s gun rider but like many top cyclists his successes can sometimes raise suspicion in a sport that has been plagued by performance enhancing drug usage. The immediate response by Sky team chief Dave Brailsford was to suggest that the data had been taken to discredit the Yellow Jersey holder by showing unusual levels of peak physical performance or endurance. Froome himself has said in the past that this kind of “power data” taken in isolation can lead to false assumptions, among other reasons because it does not include environmental conditions such as wind speed or temperature.

It’s not clear in this case whether metadata such as time stamps could provide that additional context, and numbers tallied against known weather conditions, but the case highlights a more interesting broader trend – data analytics is eating the sports world. Brailsford himself became feted for introducing analysis of “marginal gains” – tiny improvements that when aggregated can make the difference between winning and coming second.

Modern coaches are obsessed by data. Some might trace this back to star US sports coaches like Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics who was celebrated in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball and a subsequent movie. Beane gained a competitive advantage by analysing player data such as slugging and on-base percentages; despite baseball having always been a numbers-obsessed game, these metrics had been neglected until Beane saw their value. Such is the degree that sport and data overlap that Beane currently sits on the board of the US cloud applications company NetSuite. (A related activity dubbed sabermetrics is an attempt to create a framework for analysing baseball data.)

In Formula 1 motor racing, data has always been critical to get as much as possible out of car and driver. This has led to occasional spying allegations over the years as teams attempt to understand the engineering feats of rivals. In athletics, data is scrutinised obsessively to understand the impacts of diet, the body, even clothing.

But even sports that once scorned the use of computing analysis are coming around. Look at The Ashes cricket contest currently going on between Australia and England where coaches sit glued to laptops monitoring everything from a bowler’s delivery speed to a batsman’s penchant for being out leg before wicket. In rugby union, coaches like Clive Woodward have changed conventional wisdom through sports science. Opening a new Tata Communications office in London this week he reportedly said:

“Talent alone is not enough. That is the start, not the finish. The DNA of a champion is made up of many different aspects, and the ability to learn skills – being a sponge rather than a rock – is central to this. Those who have the passion to succeed can reach the top. And whoever wins in information technology tends to win.”

Once a data desert, soccer is now drowning in data. The English coach Sam Allardyce was once mocked for his fondness for the ProZone player and game analysis software. In 2010, when infuriated by then Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez’s criticism, Allardyce even went so far as to use ProZone stats to show that his Blackburn team had completed almost as many passes as Liverpool in a game. Today, ProZone is an essential part of most leading teams’ toolkits.

Modern sport is big business and the realisation has come, rather late in the day you might argue, that relying on hunches, ancient belief systems and the proof of your eyes is not enough when a single decision might cost a team or individual tens of millions of dollars. Modern coaches and owners were brought up in the digital age and understand this even if there is still a huge space for softer skills such as player management.

The flipside of this is that with data established as a competitive weapon, it becomes a high value target for miscreants. With use of data in sports still evolving rapidly it will only be natural that we see more hacking cases.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Editorial Consultant for IDG Connect

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