Playing with data

Sports strategies decided by computers: today we are able to collect and process a lot of data during a game

A goal, a cross, a smash or an objective backed up with numbers. It’s hard to believe that the highest expression of human physicality and plasticity can be interpreted – and sometimes planned – by a set of algorithms. However the future is already here and, in sport, data analysis has become the performance magnetic resonance.

Today words as “big data” have a range of different meanings associated both with the amount of information stored as with the technologies used to analyze them. It has become a term associated with almost anything. However, the term simply indicates a high volume of variables processable by new technologies.

Sport is one of the fields of application with the highest amount of data. If we were to analyse every single event on the field in a football game, from the weather to a champion’s single action, we would have to manage around fifteen thousand events per match.

As the amount of data collected increases, the difficulty in managing the data significantly increases. One of the methods used for processing it is artificial intelligence, which allows us to find answers in correlations and interactions among the variables.

The areas are very varied, but let’s look at our beloved football, which are divided into 3 macro-categories:

  1. Performance analysis
  2. Fan engagement and Smart Arena
  3. Health and psychological data analysis.

“Ball” data collection can be used to analyse player performance, to predict injuries or sports results (1, X, 2), to analyse game tactics and can even be used for specific analyses like substituting a football player in real time because the fall in his/her indicators is bringing down the team’s performance.

Then, in a much more amateur way, there are more and more fans who “follow” accounts that provide match data (Opta is one of the most famous and most followed) and use statistics to tweet original views, feeding the race to see who gets the most retweets. It is one of the trendiest and most hip sofa sports in our country. The next step that new technologies today allow it is to combine these numbers to get invisible answers to even the most expert eyes, but no less essential for this reason.

For example, the possibility of comparing players through data, thereby revolutionising scouting times and methods. Do I want to buy someone similar to the Juventus player Dybala? Software already exists like the very Italian startup Wallabies which, based on millions of variables collected for each game, can tell us which players around the world have the most similar characteristics. Thus breaking down search times and also indicating a fair market price compared to transactions involving similar athletes.

There are various types of collections, from the “classic” one through video and tagging, to wearables. Devices such as GPS trackers can be found in T-shirts, shoes, shin guards or in the ball. In American football data is even collected from mouth guards.

The collection and process phase used to discover information (always present in the data) has one goal: to enable the sportsperson to excel.

Fan engagement, on the other hand, gathers data to involve the fan in an experience that can be fun too. We are not far away from the time when, through a viewer, a fan can don a VR headset and feel like Cristiano Ronaldo and see through his perspective for the whole game, in a meeting of sport, entertainment and technology that, ten years ago, would have seemed like science fiction. Complementary to this aspect is the Smart Arena, or the construction of increasingly avant-garde stadiums that allow the collection of as much data as possible to develop more targeted and effective marketing strategies.

Finally, an enormity of useful information can be extrapolated from medical data for the prevention and health of the athlete, but also to improve their performance.

The amount of information than can be collected doubles every year. Artificial intelligence processes it and turns it into competitive advantages. We are only at the beginning of an endless field of application, in a sports market which, according to recent KPMG estimates, is worth 600-700 billion dollars a year and is at the birth of a sector that is already creating completely new and highly qualified jobs.


Dario Donato

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