Big Data: new player in sports

The latest data analytics help coaches understand their athletes and allow sports producers to anticipate spectator behavior. Athlete tracking sensors in playing fields are increasingly popular in stadiums.

Norbert Biedrzycki Sport BigData

We all want success

By bringing technology to the huge Olympic Games project, Atos sought to demonstrate its resolve to succeed. Much like an athlete walking onto a track, our company entered the ring accepting the technological and business challenges involved in the game. The fight it fought was grueling and wearying. The Games are not only the excitement of athletic competition but also the overlapping interests of advertisers, broadcasters, publishers, sports managers and investors. There are also technological considerations. All participants believe that solid preparation, business analyses and the technologies they use will help them succeed in athletics and business.


Less margin for unknowns

The possibility of predicting success has become one of the main aspects of today’s sports spectacles. Athlete preparation, the marketing of competitions and their delivery to television screens and smartphone displays all carry an enormous price tag. As a result, they entail a risk too huge for any athletes, coaches and producers to want to take. No one can afford uncertainty as to whether the show will succeed. The CEOs, coaches and players must win or, should they fail, at least make the defeat spectacular enough to satisfy viewers. It is viewers that ultimately pay for watching the athletes battle it out. They can watch them with the help of thousands of outside broadcasting vans, cameras, microphones, servers and Wi-Fi lines. Viewers must be given a 100% guarantee of good entertainment.


Visionaries and computers

Billy Beane, a sports club manager in the motion picture Moneyball has shown how to make sports predictable. This character, played by Brad Pitt, took a whole new approach to training and sports success. He knew that winning was not only about regular endurance training and good physical therapy. He discarded any preconceived notions about his players as overly random and uncertain. To secure victory, he harnessed the latest technology and employed computers to analyze past failures, incidents and player behaviors. The visionary expected data analytics to help him make his players more efficient, predict their behavior and even discover new talent. Today, such strategies are no longer surprising among real-life coaches. Data analytics and the technologies that underpins them serve all parties to the sports spectacle: the contenders, the coaches, the fans and the TV show producers.


From factories to stadiums

Pitt’s character’s approach would not surprise Jill Stelfox, Vice President of the US-based Zebra Technologies. Today, Jill Stelfox smiles at the recollection of the times when no one but farmers and factory managers took interest in his technology. Farmers could use tracking and data processing systems in breeding cattle. Factory managers placed cameras and sensors over their assembly lines to boost manufacturing efficiency. Today, his company is routinely approached by sports club owners, coaches and stadium administrators. He offers a system of sensors which collect data from stadiums and transmit them to servers in real time. The system continuously monitors the playing field and specific player movements, including the strength at which they hit the ball. All this is combined with historic data from playing fields, as recorded during games and practices. The data mix becomes a treasure trove of knowledge for any trainer.


Coaches want Big Data

Coaches in various sports increasingly resort to using information gathering and processing systems. They analyze electronically data on athlete behavior at games, runner dehydration and exhaustion, impact during physical contact between players, running speed in track, ball kicking force and even the quality of sleep on the night before competitions. Such information can become a powerful tool in the hands of any trainer committed to creating his own athlete training system.

In an interview for The Guardian, Cynthia Rudin, professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology briefly summarized the benefits that the world of athletics is gaining from Big Data. Her claim was that: “Big Data analytics can help tweak training plans, discover patterns specific for individual competitors and predict the decisions of a particular opposing team coach. The data coming from sensors placed on the body of a race car can be used to help any driver win”.


If sport is…

a business for athletes, coaches, managers and producers, why shouldn’t it benefit from the global trend of Big Data? If companies can process information to enhance management, why shouldn’t club owners and team coaches do the same? After all, does it matter if the data one uses applies to sales volumes or the heart rates of runners in a stadium. What counts is that it helps predict the course of events. Or at least helps one strive to do so. No matter what technologies are used, the talents of athletes will always be key to winning and will always remain diverse. Sport will always be a game of roulette.


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Leave a Reply


  1. John McLean

    Big data, as defined in Wikipedia, is a term for data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing application software is inadequate to deal with them. Since the data sets are so huge, the challenges include capture, storage, analysis, data curation, search, sharing, transfer, visualization, querying, updating and information privacy.

  2. John McLean

    Big data processing is being developed in thousands of directions at the same time. It is reasonable to say it will continue to make progress in each direction that certain research groups focus on. Sport application is one of them

  3. johnbuzz3

    Sport data scientists have attempted to replicate the success of prediction based on big data approach in basketball and soccer, American football. Team games. This science is driven by the relatively new ability to gather vast amounts of data about the players and the play while the game is in progress. Overall good read

  4. TomCat

    Capturing data is key. Used by NBA and NFL as well. Athletes train with sensors that monitor their heart rates, reaction times and distance for example. The data can be used to prevent injury in-game; crunched later on, this data can provide performance insights as well. But you don’t have to be a million-dollar team to have such statistics at your gym. For eample golfing apps are available to smartfone platforms. Apps gather statistics that show areas of their game that need improvement.

  5. TomCat

    Big data is an integral part of our everyday live. Many don’t see the extent to which big data affects our world, and some don’t see it at all. Big Sports is big bucks, so it makes perfect sense that a software and analytical tools provider would want to enter into many years arrangements with teams that rely on robust solutions to improve upon fan experience and business operations for any eam, league, stadium.

  6. CaffD

    I was thinking more of pickup style games but on the organized sports levels if we stick to the smart basketball example. Some very simple data points could end controversial calls. As long as they aren’t affecting the actions of the ball itself I think it’s a great tech that brings a lot to the table. Even things as simple as tracking the amount of time a single ball is in play would be good for the league to track the life of a piece of equipment.

    Interesting and good job 🙂

  7. DCzaj

    What about robotic wars? It might be next step, but it is happenin now. Do yo remember SkyNet?

    • Norbert Biedrzycki  

      Actually I do remember being a teenager watching best performance ever of Arnold S. Priceless ☺ Very first scene when giant robot smashes human sculls by it’s tracks – this moment is hard coded in my mind forever

  8. DDonovan

    Very good written article. Many uses of big data have a good impact on productivity. Areas like graph analytics, deep and machine learning are critical to help fight against crime, reduce fraud and minimize waste and improve on healthcare systems…

    Sport using Big Data – that would be sth new for me but very interesting indeed

  9. TomK

    Very interesting topic. I need to see the movie. But, I have already spotted beacons at the stadiums, drones filming, and lot of different IoT devices. I don’t know if this helps to enjoy to games but definitely should help to comment and get statistics.

    Good article 😉

  10. JohnE3

    Beacons are one of the most important new technologies in sport. Small, cheap, capable of communicate with smartphone apps via Bluetooth, WIFI connected. Helps spectators to become more digitally engaged on he arena

  11. TonyHor

    Intersting point of view. Big Data in sport !!!