Playing with data to win

Running track with numbers - using data to win
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Last year at this time, nearly all sports events were cancelled due to the peaking coronavirus case numbers. Sports halls were empty, gyms were closed and quiet stadiums were eerie reminders of how seriously the pandemic hit all industries. Now, with vaccines being made available for more and more people around the world, fans are gearing up for what is set to be an unbeatable summer of sport both at home and away.

About the author

Craig Stewart is CTO at SnapLogic.

With the Tokyo Olympics, Wimbledon and UEFA European Championship already upon us, those working in the sports industry are looking to engage even more fans to tune in for their favorite sport either from home, local pub or at the live event. As a result, according to Deloitte, the sports data analytics industry is expected to reach nearly $4 billion by 2023 as teams, coaches, broadcasters, and rights holders harness data to improve performance and connect with fans.

Data to help players perform better

Talent is vital in delivering well performing teams, as is determination. But increasingly athletes are gaining an edge by analyzing their own performance and those of their competitors, allowing them to adjust the way they train, focusing on improving weaknesses and monitoring their progress.

The process of focusing on data to drive performance first saw success back in 2003, when British Cycling’s Dave Brailsford implemented an approach focused on marginal gains. It saw everything from nutrition and clothing to athlete health, bicycle construction and more, analyzed at a granular level so that the performance of every single aspect could be understood and improved by just 1%. Even things as minor as what pillow delivered the best night’s sleep would be considered.

This obsession with data to drive performance was an approach which resulted in the domination by British Cycling of the decades that followed, with multiple new world and Olympic records set. This data focus even took the team into realms never imagined before for Brits, with Bradley Wiggins becoming the first British cyclist ever to win the Tour de France.

Since then, putting data front and center has become crucial for high performing teams across a huge range of disciplines – powering Formula 1 success, tennis champions and rugby world cup winners. We’ve even seen data as the driving force behind breaking the sub two hour marathon, a feat previously thought to be impossible. But data is not limited to coaches and athletes. After a year of sport lovers getting their fix online, a huge amount of work is being done to improve one of the most important aspects of all sports – the fan experience.

Data driving the fan experience

Sports as a career arguably wouldn’t exist without its fans. Without their support both on and off the field, organizers, broadcasters, trainers, merchandisers or athletes wouldn’t be able to make a living. In short, fans make up a lot of what we see in sports today, affecting trends by engaging on social media, building up an athlete by showing support, even creating a surge in garment popularity - Gareth Southgate’s vest springs to mind.

Before the pandemic, sports organizations were increasingly using the data at their fingertips to improve the fan experience. The Australian Open has historically attracted over 640,000 fans each year and by using data and analytics, the event offers CrowdTracker technology, providing live match scores, real-time venue and court information, and social network activity. CrowdTracker employs technology around the grounds and courts which generate massive amounts of data. This, in addition to information from GPS information drawn from attendee’s mobile phones, can be used to pinpoint crowds and ensure that people can avoid crowded areas, or make personalized sales offers to fans at the nearest kiosk.

Post-covid, many apps like these have been augmented to cater to an at-home fan base too, allowing those tuning in to get more than just a live stream. Real Madrid’s digital platform is a prime example of this. As a team which only has 3% of their fan base at home in Spain, the football club had already been using data and technology to tailor experiences for supporters abroad. Its virtual platform enabled the club to provide a more tailored experience for fans and has seen digital revenues increase by 30% and fan profiles increase by 400%.

The winning edge

The key to delivering data-driven player performances and connected fan experiences? Integration of the myriad of dynamic, real-time data-sets to ensure the best insights and recommendations are generated -- for coaches strategizing the best way to help their team win the next match, to marketing and fan loyalty teams looking for ways to better engage with fans, and for stadium operations teams seeking to maximize their staff, resources, and budgets.

Sports, like manufacturing, finance, pharma, and many other industries are experiencing a seismic shift in what separates the winners from the losers. Although many sports, such as tennis, have long been tech-orientated, we’ve seen other sports that are historically less data-focused, such as football join the race. The benefits of data are also now extending beyond the playing field and into spectator experience, delivering a more engaging fan experience and generating new sources of revenue.

The value of data in the sports industry is undeniable and growing exponentially. When the difference between success and failure is decided by a myriad of different factors, data is now the difference that helps players and teams secure that all important win. If coaches and players want to truly harness the power of data then they must arm themselves with the right technology and know-how to be able to deliver next-generation insights and keep themselves on the top step of the podium.

Craig Stewart is CTO at SnapLogic.