Big data and sport

Competitive sport is all about the optimisation of performance. Who can run faster, jump higher or make one play on a ball that can turn defeat into victory.

Natural talent has always been the key element of the best players but increasingly that is only still the case when allied to analysis.  The biggest single change in sporting behaviour in the next decade will be all about the use of big data.

This is a good thing for the point of intersection between sport and business because both will now rely on analytics to discover areas of performance that can be strengthened.

Accenture based its main European Analaytics Centre in Dublin and runs a thriving business on delivering insight to business leaders on how their companies are performing and how they might be improved.

In 2012 the company became involved in a sporting representation of that business through the development of the stats application for the RBS Six Nations.

Throughout the Championship users were able to access comprehensive match statistics and live text commentary that captured team and player data such as possession rates, the number of metres a player had covered over carried the ball over and much more.

The data was transmitted live in real time to the general public and used to enrich the broadcast experience.  It also proved a valuable tool for coaches.

All professional teams and an increasing number of club sides now use the services of a statistician to gather and guide analysis of what is happening on the pitch.


Managers now are as likely in most sports to have a tablet computer in their hand as opposed to a notebook or even a water bottle.  If they do not carry it then it is never far away.

For the last number of years Ray Boyne, a senior manager at Ulster Bank has served as the statistician to the Dublin Senior Gaelic Football team, playing a part in helping them win a first All Ireland title in 16 years.

Like most statisticians he judges with his eye and determines the most relevant data to bring to the team management during the game, at half time or afterwards when breaking down what went right and what went wrong.

Managers are using the data to make decisions that change a game or a season.  When asked about his use of ProZone statistics Sir Alex Ferguson responded that “if you can gain an inch you will take it.”

Soccer fans have been treated to a variety of apps based on statistics provided by London based Opta.

Arguments that were once based purely on subjectivity are increasingly being added to by knowledge of statistics.  Leo Messi and Christiano Ronaldo both score lots of goals for Barcelona and Real Madrid but did you know that Messi plays an average of 55.1 passes in a game and has a success rate of 84.5 per cent as opposed to Ronaldo’s 29.6 at a completion rate of only 76 per cent. Stats highlight weaknesses as well.

Stephen Gerrard, captain of England and stalwart of Liverpool has misplaced more passes in the opposition half this season than any other player in the Premier League.


Manchester City opened up all their data this season to amateur statisticians from around the world.  They send them to subscribers, for free, in .csv files that can then be pored over in the comfort of a home or office and teased out for relevance in forums or small meetings with the City back room team.

They have taken the decision that great ideas can come from outside, in much the way that the ‘moneyball’ phenomena changed the fortunes of the Oakland A’s.  One line from the movie of Michael Lewis’s book was “if this team wins, we’ll have changed the game.”  Big data is now changing more and more games.

Next season in Major League Soccer in the US, Adidas will trial a micoach system which draws data from chips inserted in shirts that transmit real time data on every imaginable physiological and positional reference point.

Managers like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal already use GPS data to determine player fitness and application on the training pitch.  His like will press for it to be rapidly rolled out across the major European Leagues.


The world of social gaming will also cry out for more and more data.  Irish start up Mobstats ran a trial last week on a system of crowdsourced user generated data, taken from fans watching the game on TV, which could become a rich means of engaging fans in ways that make a ‘great 0-0 draw’ as exciting and relevant as any other match. Young fans will learn about maths and computer science through the medium of sport and gaming rather than through the classroom and that can not be underestimated.

Goal win games but what leads to those goals is increasingly of importance to more and more of those who keep sport alive whether through playing, watching or building commercial partnerships.

Microsoft have in the past year agreed deals with the Lotus Formula One team and the British and Irish Lions for their tour down under next summer.  They are interested in data as a means of performance enhancement and fan engagement.  When a company like that turns to sport not only for marketing but for product development then as Billy Beane says in Moneyball, “that changes the game.”

The importance of data will be discussed as one of the themes at the next Sport for Business Members’ Round Tables on Broadcasting and Sport to be held at the studios of RTE on Thursday November 8th. Find out more about this event.

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