The Future of the Data-Driven Football Field

Together we make football — and this week marks the kickoff of preseason for the NFL. Sports analytics have been a hot topic in the IT Center for some time now, and with each update, we’ve gained insights as to how the data-driven mentality of the enterprise is just as prevalent and necessary within the realm of sports. In June, Paul Crawford discussed the real-time analytics used by Germany’s football team (or soccer, as they say in America) and the competitive advantage that eventually aided their win of the World Cup. Today we sat down with Paul to discuss analytics both on the field and in the enterprise, and how data is changing the way we make football (American style).


ITC: Sports analytics seems to be evolving at a rapid pace in a number of professional leagues; as someone working in both sports and data analysis, how would you summate the past and future of sports analytics?

Paul: I think the first step is to mentally separate the sports analytics world and its progression into two pieces: the data, and the techniques we use for harnessing and using the data. Historically, data sources were from box scores or maybe stopwatch times. Over the past couple of decades, people have used increasingly sophisticated statistical techniques to more effectively realize value from the data. However, the biggest change happening right now is the introduction of technology that enables us to collect a lot more data. New technologies are being introduced that track information about athletes multiple times a second and are generating a flood of data to analyze. The future of sports analytics is figuring out how to effectively harness these massive volumes of data either to improve the fan experience or create a competitive advantage on the playing field.

ITC: The NFL's announcement regarding their efforts to use new technologies to create “Next Gen Stats” is exciting for team owners and fans alike. What are your thoughts on the emerging technologies and solutions available to teams?

Paul: This is an exciting development. I can’t wait to see how the broadcasters will use this data, so be sure to watch some of the NFL’s Thursday Night Football games this season to see for yourself. I also like some of the technologies that can track things not only going on with players but with the ball as well. I’m intrigued about the future prospects of collecting physiologic and other performance data on athletes — heart rate, respiration rate, muscle activity, impacts, etc. — and how they might prove useful for optimizing training and potentially preventing injuries. We are entering a “wild west” era of sports analytics with a lot of opportunities for technologists, data scientists, sports franchises, and fans alike.

ITC: If you could give advice to the analysts collecting this new, unstructured data what would you recommend in terms of leveraging this information and turning it into a true competitive advantage?


Paul: Making this data useful requires that you marry deep expertise in sports with deep expertise in data analytics; the best results are generated from good partnerships. It typically takes a lot of hard work to transform unstructured data — video, pictures, information scraped from websites and social media, etc. — into a useable form. If you don’t have someone with a command of the business helping the data scientist generate actionable insights, it will all degenerate into an academic exercise.

ITC: For IT decision makers looking to derive insight from sports analytics, how does this translate to the enterprise?

Paul: Going back to the separation in the world of analytics between the data and the techniques, I think it is important that any enterprise regularly think about their data sources and how they can be evolved, improved, or combined with others. They should be aware of the business need and sensitivities surrounding the quality and resolution of the data. Similarly, they should be constantly testing new ways to gain insights from the data. Data analytics is rapidly changing, especially in this new era of big data and the cloud, and businesses risk getting left behind if they are not keeping up. If you want to maintain an edge over your competitors, you need to stay invested in innovating and improving your business operation.  The business cliché is absolutely applicable to the world of enterprise analytics: Evolve or die.

There’s much to be learned on behalf of both sports teams and the enterprise, and in many ways the wild west comparison should apply to business as well. The ultimate advantage lies at the hands of an organization willing to take risks, challenge the status quo, and push the envelope even further. As for football, stay tuned to the Next Gen Stats happening this season — the game has changed. Can you keep up?

To join in the social conversation, follow Paul at @RPaulCrawford and us at @IntelITCenter, and be sure to use #ITCenter.