Memorable Sporting Moments Are Driven by Data

Real-time analytics and instant access to statistics is enhancing the fan experience on TV and online. Behind it all lies the number-crunching might of cloud computing.

It’s difficult to remember a time when football on TV didn't have pop-up pass completion percentages and shot counts; when cricket didn’t have that clever infrared Hot Spot view; and tennis didn’t have its IBM SlamTracker. Sport has always been awash with statistics. But thanks to modern sensor and computing technology, these can now be extracted, processed, and visualised like never before, often in real-time.

In today's connected, on-demand world, we have come to expect this extra layer of information as standard. It allows us to make sense of the sport we're watching, adding extra depth and context to the unfolding story of a game.

For example, South Korea's victory over Germany in the 2018 FIFA World Cup was at odds with the data[1], which showed that South Korea only had 30% of the possession, three corners to Germany's nine, 11 shots to Germany's 26. Yet that data also shows that Germany were wasteful in front of goal, their rhythm disrupted by the harrying of a South Korean side that committed 15 fouls to the German’s six.

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Crucially, Germany’s fate was decided by new VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology, as an initial offside call for Kim Young-gwon’s 92-minute shot was dramatically overruled. In Moscow, a team of four video assistant referees scrutinised the footage to offer the match referee a definitive judgement. Linked by a fibre optic data network, they could call upon any one of 33 broadcast cameras, eight of them super slow-motion and four ultra slow-motion.

VAR had a troubled start to the World Cup, but it generally got decisions right. In fact, according to a study[2] of 804 competitive matches since 2016, VAR improves the chances of a correct decision in a game from 93% to 98.9%. The study highlights the correction of ‘1 clear and obvious error every 3 matches’ and that 56.9% of checks were for key incidents, such as penalties and goals.

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VAR was one of a host of fan-friendly, data-driven solutions at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Match stats, provided by sports data specialists like Opta, offered a glimpse into the hidden mechanics of every game; multi-angle replays enabled in-depth analysis; while the BBC allowed viewers to get even closer to the action, streaming games in 4K via the BBC iPlayer and in virtual reality via the BBC Sport VR 2018 FIFA World Cup app.

It’s data networks that are key to enriching the fan experience.

That app joined those already developed by BT Sport and Sky and reportedly had over 325,000 downloads. But while VR camera solutions can let you select your own vantage point in a stadium, watching sport through a set of goggles is still in its infancy. The technology works, but it demands a strong hook to make it worth sticking with.

As Jonathan Levene, managing director of Intel Sports Europe, told the SportsPro conference earlier this year[3]: “What will drive VR in the future are things like fan control of the cameras and a maturity of the networks.”

By analysing historic match data, broadcasters can show which way a player might shoot.

It’s these data networks that are key to enriching the fan experience. They power all sorts of content delivery mechanisms, from real-time stats on websites to the speedy delivery of tightly packaged social media highlights that people can consume on the go.

“The fact is, fans today want access to the latest content as quick as possible,” says Jack Cammish at Imagen, a company that uses cloud computing to store and securely distribute sporting video. “Their desire for immediacy is as important, if not more so, than quality... We are already seeing the BBC post the latest [World Cup] clips to Twitter and Snapchat.”

It’s not just football fans that are benefiting from the invisible introduction of data analytics and cloud computing. At the 2017 Tour de France, Dimension Data collected sensor data from 198 riders in 22 teams, combining it with external information (such as course gradients and weather conditions) to generate real-time performance insights. The solution created and analysed over three billion data points over the Tour’s 21 stages.[4]

Dimension Data tracks the Tour de France, analysing billions of data points to enhance website coverage.

In the US, the NFL is working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to provide the compute power and analytics for its Next Gen Stats player-tracking system[5]. This system “captures real time location data, speed, and acceleration for every player, every play on every inch of the field,” enabling new and advanced metrics such as player speed, a measurement of a quarterback’s ‘Time to Throw’ and his pass ‘Aggressiveness’.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the fan experience also extends before and after any game we watch. It’s about ‘where’ you view the action as much as ‘how’. If you’re in a stadium, how seamless is the ticketing? How interactive is the TV coverage? Can you tune in live from a mobile device and share your thoughts as part of a global crowd? 

We’ve already seen how cloud computing and big data analytics have the power to revolutionise sporting performance across football, cricket, tennis, and Formula 1. Implemented well, you’ll rarely see their effects on the development of the fan experience.

Instead, you’ll understand the nuances of your favourite sport a little better and, through your interactions, your preferences, your purchases, and your communications, your favourite sport might just understand you a little better in return. Only by understanding what fans want, can content providers hope to deliver a best-in-class experience. 

As ever, the secrets lie in the data.

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