Over the past 15 years or so there has been an explosion of data analytics in sport, as individuals, teams, organisations and even video games’ developers seek to capitalise on what has come to be known as the “Moneyball effect”.
This morning we are pleased to bring you an article from David Smith of SAS the analytics experts working with the Sport Ireland Institute to gain an edge for Irish athletes at the Tokyo Olympic Games on how analytics is changing the game of sport.
The 2003 book and subsequent 2011 Brad Pitt film of the same name, Moneyball outlines the statistical approach of Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane, which led to the team winning more regular-season MLB games than almost any other franchise in 2002, despite having the second-lowest payroll in the league.
Although popularised in the 21st century by Moneyball, data analytics isn’t a new phenomenon in sport. G.R. Lindsey’s article ‘Statistical Data Useful for the Operation of a Baseball Team’, published in a 1959 edition of the Operations Research journal, suggests it has been in use in the United States for at least 60 years.
Lindsey’s piece states: “Baseball is a game well suited for operations analysis and is already well provided with statistical records of past performances of individuals.”
When you consider how baseball, and U.S. sport in general, has always been presented — with key performance statistics of its protagonists portrayed on popular baseball cards, for example, since the turn of the 20th century – it’s perhaps easy to see how the sport has subsequently leant itself to analytics.
As the benefits of analytics have become better understood, the science has spread to a greater number of disciplines. The approach in Olympic sports gained notoriety through Sir David Brailsford, who, as performance director of British Cycling and manager of Team Sky, masterminded the most successful period in British Cycling’s history.
Brailsford’s philosophy, which he refers to as the “aggregation of marginal gains” helped secure 30 Olympic medals (2004, 2008, 2012) and British winners of the Tours de France in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
The Harvard Business Review reported in 2015: “Sir Dave, a former professional cycler who holds an MBA, applied a theory of marginal gains to cycling — he gambled that if the team broke down everything they could think of that goes into competing on a bike, and then improved each element by one per cent, they would achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.”
Explaining the level of detail the team went into, Brailsford said: “By experimenting in a wind tunnel, we searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analysing the mechanics area in the team truck, we discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So, we painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities.”
“We hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper handwashing so as to avoid illnesses during competition and we also decided not to shake any hands during the Olympics.”
“We were precise about food preparation. We brought our own mattresses and pillows so our athletes could sleep in the same posture every night. We searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, we felt they gave us a competitive advantage.”
The benefits of analytics don’t end with elite athletes however, and sporting organisations are investing in insights for commercial gain as well as enhancing performance “on the pitch”. SAS, the leader in analytics, is working with organisations in basketball, boxing, football, ice hockey, rowing, swimming and more.
In the NBA, with SAS’ help, Orlando Magic is in a league of its own when it comes to using technology to engage fans and drive revenue. Even in the city’s competitive entertainment market, the team is enjoying a seven-figure surge in ticket sales and sponsorships thanks to a new mobile app and a winning analytics strategy.
“We’re leveraging technology as much as we can to enhance the fan experience and build new and improved products,” said Jay Riola, Senior Vice President of Strategy.
To test variable ticket prices, the team’s front office acquired SAS Data Management and SAS Analytics. Success followed, with ticket revenue jumping 50 per cent in the first season.
Meanwhile, British Rowing is seeing the best of both worlds through its relationship with SAS. The national governing body’s Official Analytics Partner is assisting on three major data-driven projects to improve the talent pathways to the national squad, develop the nation’s competition framework, and help British Rowing better understand the demographics of its membership.
The Membership Analytics and Athlete Profiling projects have enabled British Rowing to build a clear picture of its members from both a performance and engagement perspective. Will Satch, GB Rowing Team athlete highlights the importance of truly understanding the rowing community: “Grassroots is the biggest thing. You can think of it as a pyramid; if you can create a bigger grassroots base, you can have a higher peak.”
British Rowing has been able to positively roll-out and track engagement with targeted and alternative membership formats such as competitor, recreational, coaching and volunteering. This has seen a 32% increase in members, all tracked through Visual Analytics. As a result, SAS analytics has supported British Rowing in analysing grassroots performance, elite profiling and streamlining talent identification.
The future of data analytics in sport looks bright with new possibilities available via Artificial Intelligence (AI), and fans of Orlando Magic are among those whose game-day experience is being enhanced by its application.
Picture yourself as a season ticket holder driving to a game. Fifteen minutes before tipoff, you receive pre-game analysis powered by AI. A mile from the arena, your phone buzzes with your seat number, which is based on demand for the game. With your Orlando Magic app open, you pay for valet parking and get turn-by-turn directions to your seat. You sit down and order nachos from the app to be brought to your seat, and then redeem a few loyalty points to have the mascot swing by for a selfie with your child.
The app drove significant revenue from customer purchases for the 2018-19 season, including thousands of unique experiences and items offered in the Magic Marketplace. The Magic saw a 120 per cent increase in game-day app users for the season, and fan satisfaction scores have increased by 20 per cent regarding the team’s use of in-venue technology. As a further benchmark of success, 100 per cent of season ticket holders use the team app.
“There’s a whole lot of innovation happening with this team,” Riola added. “There’s no question that analytics will play a key role in guiding our future on and off the court.”
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