From cars to catamarans, how big data plays in sports

From cars to catamarans, how big data plays in sports

Summary: Data analytics can do a lot more for business than just predict consumer shopping habits.

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SAN FRANCISCO—Big data is hardly the most exhilarating topic, inside or outside of the information technology industry. But it's playing into the world of sports in a major way, and on both sides of the fence. (All puns intended.)

One simple, obvious, but still quite effective way that big data serves sports fans? The statistics hub.

During a media luncheon on August 22, SAP chief marketing and communications officer Jonathan Becher revealed that one of the business software company's most popular apps is actually directed at consumers: the stats page for NBA.com.

The cloud-based directory is teeming with scores, news headlines, social media tie-ins and charts analyzing players' shots over games that span the last several seasons. Since its February launch, the SAP-powered site has registered more than 13 million users, Becher said.

It's not SAP's only effort in the area, either. The company has signed contracts with the New York Yankees baseball team (which, Becher quipped, is looking to use SAP's apps to write "Moneyball 2.0") and the San Francisco 49ers football team, for which SAP already serves as sponsor for the team's new stadium.

SAP is not the only technology company that has reached out to the National Football League. With the NFL's pre-season already underway, Intel has touted its own big data partnership with the league that aims to improve the fantasy football experience.

According to an Intel study published this month, approximately 75 percent of people who play fantasy football expect that detailed data is delivered in real-time. Furthermore, 66 percent of fantasy football players believe that technology such as websites and applications help them best manage their fantasy teams.

"Fantasy football is one of those situations where the fans want to be connected to the players," NFL Hall of Fame player Jerry Rice remarked during a panel discussion about the collision of big data and fantasy football held here on Wednesday by Intel.

Josh Zerkle, a senior writer covering the NFL for the sports website Bleacher Report and who spoke at the event, went further. "Data has ravaged the way we watch sports," he said, "trumping the stadium experience."

The trend is driven by mobile devices, said Boyd Davis, vice president and general manager of Intel's datacenter software division. Mobile content—such as interactive polls or video "webisodes" that are playable with a single tap or flick of the finger—is driving richer user experiences, he said. That leads more demand for more powerful devices, which in turn creates more data. 

It's a cycle, Davis said. But "the complexity of making it simple is much more complicated."

One way Intel aims to support the trend is by offering its Graph Builder for Apache Hadoop, an open-source software tool that takes separate pieces of data—such as travel schedules, game times, weather, team composition and injury frequency—and weaves them together, using visualizations, to demonstrate patterns that could contribute to an eventual win or loss.

Big data is also filling in gaps for coaches and their staff.

There are approximately 92 data points per play in a game of American football, according to John Pollard, general manager of the sports solutions group at the sports tech and data firm STATS. That's helpful even if the game of football—different from other sports in that some scenarios are difficult to quantify and track over time, such as the movement of a team's offensive line—is otherwise challenging for data collectors.

And then there are "wearables," short for wearable technology. Rice, who won three Super Bowl championships playing for the 49ers and a conference championship with cross-bay rivals the Oakland Raiders, championed the cause, highlighting how the technology is used to track players' heart rates, calories and more, enabling athletic trainers to tailor training regimens that could more carefully avoid accidental injury.

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Topics: Big Data, Data Centers, Data Management, Oracle, Tech Industry

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  • Old news in bicycle racing

    Pro teams in bicycle racing have been using power meters, heart rate monitors, and cycle computers to gather data since at least 1995 and probably earlier. When I was an amateur racer in 1994, all were within the budget of an amateur racer with a middle class income. I used both a cycle computer and a heart rate monitor in my training and racing.
    Marc Erickson