For the final of our 2021 expert guides, we’re looking at sports data. Specifically, how data generated by the action on the field of play is captured, analysed and deployed to address a variety of high performance and sports business needs.
Recognising the immense value created by effectively utilising data capture and analysis is an indisputable, fundamental tenet of the modern sporting experience. This is reflected financially in the initial public offerings (IPOs) of key sports data providers, such as Sportradar and Genius Sports.
Sportradar, the world’s largest provider of data feeds to sports betting operators, listed on the Nasdaq at a valuation near US$8 billion in September this year. The company has over 150 sports league partners and provides data to more than 900 sports betting operators, including two of the largest US operators: DraftKings and FanDuel.
Rival data provider Genius Sports listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in April this year with a current market capitalisation of US$3.7 billion. The IPO was launched after Genius Sports secured an exclusive deal to be the NFL’s official sports data provider which included the NFL gaining an equity stake in the company as part of the agreement.
Leagues owning a piece of their official data providers is a growing trend, reflecting the leagues’ seemingly recent appreciation of the inherent value of the data generated by their sport. Previous examples include the Australian Football League (AFL), which has a 49 per cent share in Champion Data, the league’s official sports data provider, which also works with Netball Australia to gather and process official match data.
These aforementioned data providers offer a broad range of products and solutions that essentially boil down to two areas of focus: the actual capture of the data (turning on-field action into an accurate stat line), and processing/analysing that data to provide usable insights for their customers (betting, fan engagement, broadcast, performance).
How is sports data captured?
The most basic form of data capture is a manual process by “data scouts”. These are people employed by a data provider to physically attend a match (or, in some circumstances, watch a live broadcast) and translate the action on the field into various identifiable, structured stats. The data scout will verbally report these stats back to the company HQ “data centre” that will then collate, quality assure and disseminate the now official data feed.
One match could have a team of data scouts all in attendance, each focusing on an individual stat or part of the game. Speed is absolutely crucial in data collection, most notably for sports betting with in-game bets requiring near instantaneous transmission of data. It’s for this reason why sending people to physically attend the match can be the best way to overcome delays in a “live” broadcast of the match and why the status as an “official” data provider is so important.
The practical implications of this are currently playing itself out in the UK High Court. In a sealed filing from February, Genius Sports, as the exclusive data provider for English soccer’s Premier League, the English Football League (EFL) and Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), argued that Sportradar unlawfully dispatched data scouts to those leagues’ matches to gather data.
The next layer of data capture is from wearable tech which gives insights such as player position (in relation to other players and to the ball), acceleration, top speed and inferred workload. Examples include back mounted Catapult GPS units in the AFL and Zebra Sports RFID tags in the shoulder pads and ball in the NFL. The data generated from these wearables can also be integrated into the broadcast experience. For the AFL this is the ‘Telstra Tracker’ and for the NFL it is ‘NFL Next Gen Stats Powered by AWS’.
Health monitoring wearables such as Whoop and Oura are pushing beyond the positional data garnered by most wearables by integrating biometric data, including heartrate, into the live sports broadcast. Early use cases from Whoop data are in the Ryder Cup, PGA Tour and Nascar.
Although wearables are commonplace in a training setting, US sports leagues have been slower than their global counterparts in allowing the in-game use of wearable data for real-time coaching. The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup final this year was one of the first in-game uses of wearables in North America. The waistband of each player was outfitted with Kinexon sensors running on ultra-wideband radio tech. The WNBA Commissioners Cup was also a first in North America for integrating wearables with optical tracking for data capture and analysis.
A key development for athletic performance is applying computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to unobtrusively and automatically gather player tracking data. By using optical tracking systems coaches can gain important insights without having to touch or interrupt the athlete as they perform their movement or skill.
The Commissioner’s Cup used 14 Hawk-Eye optical tracking cameras to track 17 distinct points on the skeleton of each player and referee, as well as the ball. Hawk-Eye, a division of Sony, will be familiar to tennis and cricket fans as the virtual line judge and LBW third umpire. However, the financial and logistical impediments of installing fixed camera systems in every stadium mean that for many sports leagues a manual data scout approach will still be the primary approach for data capture. This is likely to change over the next few years as technology innovations reduce the size and cost of optical tracking systems.
The sports industry has seen rapid technological advances in the variety and volume of data that can be accurately captured. But data is not inherently valuable. Collecting more and more data does not in and of itself deliver better and better results – whether that is for athletic performance or fan engagement. A new challenge created by this data boom is the need to turn these various data inputs into something meaningful, insightful and timely that a coach or fan can actually engage with and draw value from. The next evolution of this data capture and analysis is effectively integrating all these data sources.
Below is a sample of some notable and innovative companies offering sports data capture and analysis technology solutions:
- Genius Sports
- Stats Perform
- Champion Data
- Second Spectrum (Genius Sports)
- Synergy Sports (Sportradar)
- Hawk-Eye (Sony)
- Zebra Sports
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Thanks for reading the sixth instalment of a monthly series examining the world of sports technology, brought to you by Thomas Alomes and the team at Sports Tech World Series.
In each column, we will provide insights into the global sports tech market drawn from our latest industry research, consulting clients and expert interviews. Our aim is to quickly inform you on what’s happening in the industry now, where it’s heading in the future and who are the major players, both emerging and established, operating at the cutting edge of this exciting space.
To make more sense of sports tech, we have classified the industry into sub-categories. Having covered official sports data in this edition, the different areas being covered in this series are:
Solutions designed to improve the efficiency and customer experience in stadiums and venues.
Athlete performance and tracking
Devices and platforms used to measure or track athletes with the purpose of testing and improving performance.
Athlete, team and event management
Solutions that support the management of athletes, teams, leagues and events, with a focus on improving overall efficiencies at an individual and organisational level.
Solutions focused specifically on the unique challenges of betting and fantasy sports.
Data capture and analysis
Data processing, capture and analysis solutions that support insights and decision making for a variety of sports related organisations.
Solutions focused specifically on the unique challenges of esports and gaming.
Solutions designed to enhance and improve the experience of the fan, or increase the value for the sponsor, including memberships and social media engagement.
Solutions that enable and enhance the sharing and distribution of sports content such as streaming platforms, automated broadcast graphics and online content publishers.
Sports Tech World Series (STWS) is the trusted resource in the global sports technology ecosystem. We provide research, consulting and market insight services to help teams, leagues, governments, investors and vendors to achieve results and meaningful impact over the hype in sports technology and sports innovation.
About Thomas Alomes
An industry consultant, researcher and speaker, Thomas Alomes is a global leader in sports technology ecosystem growth and development with a passion for connecting the best people with the best ideas. He is currently SVP, head of market insights at STWS and the founder of Sports Innovation Texas.