The Digital Disruption in Sports

Data analytics in sports was thrown into the limelight when Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics used the power of data to finish first in the American League West although they lacked true star power. The now famous general manager was able to identify undervalued MLB players and use the A’s limited resources to put together a strong team while flying under the radar. If you want to hear more about this amazing story I highly recommend reading or watching Moneyball to see how the use of data analytics was pioneered before becoming widely adopted in the MLB and other professional leagues. The fact of the matter is, essentially all teams now use data analytics to analyze patterns over long periods of time and maximize potential value based on these analyses. But a new trend developing across the entire sports analytics market is the use of data in real time to analyze how to best beat an opponent during the game, and the use of data to improve fan experience and loyalty. The entire sports analytics market is growing at an extremely fast pace and is expected to continue at a CAGR of ~40% through 2022 to a size of almost $4 billion – this growth highlights just how interesting this industry is becoming and the importance it will have on nearly any professional sports enterprise on earth.

            My interest in this topic was sparked when I was watching the Stanley Cup playoffs this past week and saw coaches as well as players constantly looking at iPads while on the bench to analyze past shifts and the metrics of the game. It turns out the NHL has struck a deal with Apple to provide three iPads on the bench in every arena in the league to allow teams to analyze in game data. Providing this technology in every arena has evened the playing field between teams which were previously more innovative in this aspect and those who were not. Teams even have specific “video coaches” sitting in an office and splicing together game clips and metrics so the team has access immediately. As we heard in a previous presentation, there are companies developing software with the help of artificial intelligence to make this process even more accurate and instantaneous, which are slowly being rolled out throughout the league. Using these analytics allows coaches to make adjustments in game to take advantage of weaknesses they are seeing that day, or better defend against players playing especially well – for instance if a goalie is weak on the glove hand a coach can have their players block shooting lanes from that side to help prevent goals. Beyond these in game adjustments, the ability to immediately re-watch plays allows coaches to more effectively challenge goals if they believe a play was offside, there was a high stick that redirected the puck, or goaltender interference inhibited their goalie from making a save. This ability is invaluable in the playoffs where goals are hard to come by and any of these plays could decide who progresses to the next round.

Columbus Blue Jackets analyzing plays mid game

           Beyond hockey, analytics are being used in similar ways in tennis, basketball, football, and nearly any other sport being played at a professional level. The NBA is likely at the forefront of this movement and nearly every team in the league has hired a staff of data scientists to help with the endeavour. The Golden State Warriors are said to be one of the teams using data most effectively which has helped them launch a dynasty and become one of the most successful franchises in league history. In addition, many analysts attribute the rise in three-point shooting to data analysis, as it has risen in each of the past eight seasons. Athletes are embracing this trend and even using wearables to track attributes such as sleep and fatigue levels – data analysis is becoming part of the day to day life of professional athletes and not just something used on the playing field.

            Professional franchises have even more incentive to pursue data analytics than simply maximizing their talent, it also has the ability to build fan engagement and loyalty. However, the data collected for this purpose is often that of the fans themselves and not the players. Jonathon Kraft, president of The Kraft Group and the New England Patriots has launched the Kraft Analytics Group (commonly referred to as KAGR) initially focused on mining data for the benefit of the Patriots. KAGR focuses on all sorts of fan behaviour, tracking everything from pro shop purchases, to which ticket holders show up to the game, to who opens emails from the franchise. This data then allows them to draw conclusions about what truly matters to the fans and how to cultivate an experience that will build better fan loyalty and cause people to spend more on the franchise. Kraft believes it is easy to keep fans engaged while the team is hot and making deep playoff runs year after year, but he recognizes that these good times will end and it is important to have a loyal fan base to keep the Patriots going through difficult years. Although KAGR was created to serve the Patriots franchise, they have begun to grow and are offering their services to other professional sports franchises and colleges who have seen the value they offer in creating a better fan experience and more loyal base.

            As we have seen throughout the years, data analytics in sports is becoming ever more important in remaining competitive and building a premier fan experience. These trends span almost all professional leagues and promise to elevate the quality of play and the fan experience in the years to come. I’m interested to hear if any of you have ideas of how data analytics will disrupt the athletic landscape next!

10 comments

  1. Working in sports, I find data analytics and how they are being used to be an extremely interesting topic. The way that teams and leagues are using technology to make decisions not only for the long term, but in real time during games is really impressive. I’ve also been watching a lot of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and it has been exciting to see coaches utilizing the iPads on the benches to show clips and make adjustments based on the information that they are gathering. While hockey was one of the later adopters of widespread data analytics use, teams are now expanding their staffs to include individuals who specialize in the field to better understand and use the information that they are collecting. Data can be used in so many different ways in relation to sports aside from just the players and teams, so I’m really glad you brought up KAGR and the work that they do. In my Business of Sports Class a few semesters ago, Jessica Gellman the CEO of KAGR was a guest speaker and talked about how important fan data is to a franchises success. It was interesting to see how they were able to collect information on an individual fan in order to see how to better target them moving forward. It will be really interesting to see how teams, leagues and companies such as KAGR will continue to use data analytics moving forward.

  2. I think sports and analytics are fascinating, because there will always be a human element involved. You could pick a play that has worked for most other teams in the same situation, but if your players don’t get along then team chemistry could prevent proper execution. Your blog reminded me of an Adam Grant podcast I listened to where he interviewed Sean McVay (head coach of the Rams and youngest head coach in the NFL) about his photographic memory. Sean can retell on command almost any play he has seen in his life. He was asked about a game, “week 16 against the Titans when the Rams faced a 2nd and 11 on their 20 yard line with 4:24 remaining in the second quarter.” With that information, he was able to recite the exact play, people involved, and the outcome. Adam Grant then spoke about how Sean McVay’s brain is basically a library of plays that he can access at any moment in a game. Sean McVay’s memory operates similarly to a data library. For those who don’t have his memory, having that kind of information accessible on an iPad could be the difference between picking a winning and losing play. This style of decision making could be applied to any sport.

  3. I think data analytics in sports can be very beneficial, but I also worry that it is detracting from the nature of sport. For example, if you can use data to determine when a pitcher is going to through a curve-ball, fastball, etc., it eliminates the need for the batter to use their intuition and skill to make split second decisions and make a hit. I worry that sports will become so data driven that the skill of the players will become more irrelevant and less remarkable.

    1. I wonder if this will actually create a market for people to use data against those who rely on it! For example, if a pitcher knows that the trend will show that every third throw is a curve-ball, it’d be a very smart move for them to start using that to their advantage and tricking players at key moments in the game. Same thing with basketball players who rely on 3-pointers or football quarterbacks that are known for running vs throwing the ball. I feel like this could be a great opportunity for more ‘trick’ plays!

  4. I just re-watched Moneyball last weekend, so this post was such a timely read! It’s amazing how powerful of a tool data can be in this context, and I imagine the professional staff of each sports team looks a lot different today than it did in the past, with a lot more data scientists being hired today. While I was aware of how data analytics is being used in real-time during games, I hadn’t given much thought to how it is being used for fan experience, so I appreciate that you brought that to light in this post as well. It seems to make just as much sense to invest in analytics for your team as you would for your fan base, and I would think there is evidence suggesting a correlation between the use of analytics in a team’s marketing efforts and the resulting revenue that comes from fans.

  5. I think it shows how technology can combine with real life to produce analytics in any avenue of life. The fact that you can have real time data to help give you an advantage is insane. Is it a real advantage though if both sides have access in the NHL’s case of 3 iPads per game with their own video coaches too? Would it somehow cancel out? I think ultimately this technology can allow the business of sports to continue to grow and appeal from a marketing standpoint how to increase attendance and drive up revenue, but on the sales side understand what works and what doesn’t in real time, such as what ads interact or attract the fans at a basketball game. I think the future lies in the engagement of the fans to keep them entertained and keep coming back for more. One area that I’d love to see this technology implemented is maybe in the WWE, where you can track what types of moves and combos fans might like to see that can dictate future performances.

  6. Great post! I remember first seeing Moneyball and immediately being drawn to that “new” way of fielding a team. It was revolutionary back then, but not it seems if you aren’t using data for sports advantage then you are falling behind. The image of the Columbus Blue Jackets is awesome! Adding from the NHL’s use of tech, the NFL is one of the largest users of on-field technology for play analysis. Interestingly, you will see this primarily when an interception occurs. Continuing with this theme, data not only is performance based, but I am very intrigued by the ability for the medical aspects of in-game data. NFL teams are now able to register how hard a player got hit and pull them off the field if a concussion was possible.

  7. If you want to see a data-analytics-focused NBA team look at the Houston Rockets. They’ve been a the forefront of the entire league in this regard and are the main reason everyone is shooting so many 3 pointers.

    The Clippers are doing some crazy stuff right now also. Creating software that shows you how good of a shot each player potentially has depending on their positioning, defense, and their own shot history. It’s wild.

  8. i think that analytics applications in sports are some of the coolest and most effective across industry. That may just be because I love sports, but as you mentioned from both a player, coach, and owner perspective, analytics is able to show trends and benefits that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. From a perspective of maximizing revenue by tracking fan engagement and activity at their sporting events, analytics are able to give key insights into what types of activities and investment will return the most revenue. I think it’s cool that the NHL was able to make a deal with apple to even the playing field between teams who may not have had an analytics focused strategy and allow all teams access to this type of technology. I worry that analytics is taking away some of aspects of the game that make them so entertaining to watch, but in this day and age if you aren’t looking at this type of information then you’re behind. It’s clear that utilizing this type of tech has changed the nature of the game at almost every level, most notably in the NBA with shot selection like 3-pointers. Regardless of how these technologies are changing the game, access to real-time information is proving an important tool for coaches and players to get the most out of their players and strategy. This was a great look into how analytics is being utilized all over sports, thanks for the great post!

  9. I have always been a big data analytics guy and know its usage across sports since Billy Bean and his contribution to the A’s has exploded, and there are several cases where this has made professional athletics significantly fairer. There is a time, however, when video review and tech has had detrimental impacts on sports. For example, MLB umpires are now judged based on their accuracy vs the computer that tracked pitches. If an umpire makes a minor mistake during a game and miscalled a pitch, he will not be allowed to sit behind home plate again. That being said, I do agree that the benefits here far outweigh the negatives and it has made coaching and playing much better.

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