How tech and data are changing sports

Sports data bouncing ball

Fans of sport movies – or of Brad Pitt – will recall the film Moneyball, where Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, uses data to lead a middling baseball team to success.

Given the prevalence of sports data and technology within modern sports, it seems incredible that Moneyball – which is based on true events – is set only twenty years ago.

Earlier attempts to use data to influence sports decisions were made in the 1980s. Baseball coach Bill James pioneered the Sabermetrics system, an empirical analysis of baseball statistics that aims to optimise performance.

But what was once a novelty is now a staple of most contemporary games. Sports data – which we now rely on for accuracy and innovation – is a market that will soon be worth $3.4 billion globally.

Let’s explore how technology and data are impacting sports, what career paths are available and the companies paving the way in sports tech.

Data analytics

How do you know which footballer players to substitute before halftime?

When is the best point in a race to switch tyres?

What offensive strategy should a basketball team employ against its stronger opponent?

To answer these questions, teams use data analytics.

Sports data analysts review and find patterns in team statistics – everything from individual player performances to the opposition’s standard plays – to develop sporting strategies.

University of Louisville Strength and Conditioning Basketball Coach and MIT graduate Adam Petway is using data analytics to create optimal training programmes that minimise injury. Players use wearables to track performance both in training and match conditions.

Manchester United recently appointed Dominic Jordan as their first Director of Data Science. This marks a change in strategy for the club, which will focus on data-led decision-making. Jordan is quoted as saying: “I expect data to be transformational [at Manchester United], as the club is very much looking to be dominant in this space.”

Sports teams can review live data to make real-time adjustments, while coaches and managers can assess findings to trial long-term strategies.

Tracking technology

Many questioned why it took so long to introduce Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to the Premier League. The system, which uses multi-angle video footage reviewed by three operators, was ushered in ahead of the 2019/20 season.

But University of Bath research reveals the limitations of VAR. Using motion capture and 3D modelling, Dr. Solatani demonstrates how visual inspection alone can often lead to errors.

The more sophisticated Hawkeye – the system used in cricket and tennis matches – employs high-resolution image processing to develop a model of the ball’s position and calculate a flight path. US open-viewers will be familiar with the automated line calls generated with Hawkeye Live – an even more advanced version of the technology.

For TV sports coverage, broadcasters including the BBC, ITV and Sky Sports, use the PIERO system. It uses image recognition and encoded camera head tracking to produce quick replays, augmented reality graphics and 3D tactical analysis.

Jobs in sports tech

Sports data analyst

Data analysts in sport use performance analytics to help teams make decisions. They often work with large data sets and tend to use coding languages including Python and SQL. Sports data analysts are often tasked with data visualisation, and must also be intimately familiar with the rules of their chosen sport.

Sports machine learning engineer

Sport tech products often use machine learning and AI. Machine learning engineers help to harness these technologies to develop new solutions for both teams and fans. Engineers are often tasked with designing and monitoring machine learning algorithms, as well as building and testing production code.

Sports software engineer

Sports software engineers can have varied responsibilities, depending on the company or team’s requirements, and the nature of the sport. Often software engineers design applications, find and fix bugs, help teams answer technical questions and conduct tests to enhance their solutions. Applications could include (but certainly aren’t limited to) sports betting sites, fantasy league apps or software for wearable tech.

Sports tech companies

FanDuel

FanDuel is a sophisticated online tool for sports betting and fantasy sports plays. Founded in 2009, the company employs 1,500 people and has a global usership of over five million.

PlayerData

PlayerData uses GPS tracking and data analytics to monitor and enhance player performance. Combining an app with wearable technology, the company makes it easy for teams of any level to assess their performance.

ShotScope

Golf tech company ShotScope provides players with an easier way to track their performance. Its shot tracking capabilities allow users to assess the quality of their play and make adjustments.

Coach Logic

Coach Logic software helps teams with collaborative video analysis. Editing software combined with a social media-like feed helps to give and receive player feedback, so that everyone in the team can make actionable learnings.

Fanbase

Fanbase helps teams to engage their fans with software for seamless ticket sales, hospitality management, memberships and subscriptions.

Next steps

Want to work in sports tech? Build your skills. Explore our accredited software and data courses.

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