Just like in the business world at large, analytics and data have taken over sports. Zebra Technologies introduced wearable player tracking technology to every NFL stadium in 2014 with the company’s aim to implement the technology at all levels of sport. Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) rolled out a beta launch of player tracking for a few stadiums and events in 2014 and has now expanded to all stadiums for the 2015 season. Collecting and storing data has never been more affordable and the downward trend will only continue.
Coaching sports now involves monitoring athlete hydration, sleep, nutrition, and stress levels to prevent injuries and to optimize practice and recovery time. Booz Allen Hamilton developed tools that accurately predict MLB pitchers’ pitch selection and they plan to introduce a tool to predict plays in football. The economics of technology mean that these sophisticated technologies won’t be just for the elite schools and clubs. The main costs are typically fixed development costs. Once the tools are developed, the extra costs of spreading the technology are relatively low. Match that with the competitive zeal at all levels of sport and it is inevitable that big data will be commonplace at every level of sport sooner than one might think.
Big data hasn’t just revolutionized the performance aspect of sports, it has become the core of the entire sport business. Think fan engagement, game day experience, concessions, security, merchandise sales, sponsorship effectiveness and traffic/people flow. As an example of the swiftness of the change, the MIT Sloan School of Management and SAS have been researching the use of analytics for several years and reporting the results in the MIT Sloan Management Review. In 2013 they used the heading, Signs of an Analytics Revolution. By 2014 the title of their report was The Analytics Mandate. According to the report, “analytics is no longer a new path to value. It’s a common one.”
The implications for the workforce are huge. Big data is here to stay. Almost anything one can measure can be measured with the results cheaply stored and maintained. The challenge is having people who can effectively use the data. That means understanding statistical and quantitative analysis, having the ability to see patterns and discern their significance, and most importantly having the ability to efficiently and effectively communicate findings to key decision makers.
Opportunities are plentiful across sports and business in general for rising students who are comfortable analyzing data and that ability will be essential for future leaders in the sport industry on and off the field. Advice from top leaders support the idea that working with data is an essential competency. As an aside during a panel at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, John Forese, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Live Analytics – a consulting branch of Ticketmaster that uses the company’s global data base to help organizations know their fans—offered these words:
“One of the scarcest and most important skill sets right now is being someone who is an expert in Omniture or Google Analytics. If you are fluent in these tools you will not have trouble finding a job any time soon. It is really becoming the lifeblood of most teams and organizations.”
In an interview on strategic communication for marketing (a core sport management competency) with IBM senior executives Mike Rhodin and Jon Iwata, when asked what advice they would give students starting out today, Rhodin said:
“From the eyes of a student, someone preparing for a career…the advice I’d give is math, analytics, statistics. Those are becoming a critical skill.”
Iwata’s advice included:
“Every company will be a technology company, not because they are going to make technology, but they will marshal technology in the pursuit of what they do.”
Among his examples were police chiefs analyzing patterns to fight and deter crime, NGO charities seeking the most effective allocation of resources to meet their objectives such as stopping disease or responding to food crises, electric utilities seeking to efficiently manage power flow, and of course, marketing across the board.
It’s clear that at every level of sport training and performance, data and analytics are here to stay and will be key to staying competitive. In some ways, the development reminds me of the rapid spread of effective weight training. Young people today probably can’t imagine it, but when I was a high school athlete, our school had one universal gym station and athletes rarely had access to it. In college we had two bench press benches, an incline bench, and a squat/deadlift station for the whole school including athletes and recreational users. There were many old school coaches across all sports who swore by the notion that weight training was a detriment to athletic performance. Today all college athletes, men and women from football to volleyball and swimming, use weight training. Similar to weight training, data collection and analytics will be common at all levels of competitive sport and anyone involved in coaching and training will have to be proficient data analysts.
On the management and business side of sport, some events might be too small or too infrequent to benefit dramatically from data collection and analytics, but anything operating on a scale that allows people to enjoy a career in it will require at least a minimal proficiency in data analytics.