THE BLOG

The Data Game

11/07/2016 14:59

Like most kids, I spent many a day dream winning trophies and representing my country on various sporting battlefields. Like most adults, I spend many an hour shouting at or cheering on the men and women who actually made those dreams a reality.

Over a long career of sporting fandom, I've noticed, it really isn't like the old days. With science, data and professionalism - sport has moved from art and instinct to a quantifiable and calculable formula. Whilst the fairy dust of talent and the dog work of grit does still grace every sport, science, rigour and above all measurement is shaping athletes and helping them to gain that competitive edge.

If you've seen the film Moneyball, or read the book, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Moneyball documented how the unfashionable, impoverished and unsuccessful Oakland Athletics baseball team managed to win 20 consecutive games with an unorthodox analytics-based approach to selecting players.

Sports and athlete data is improving performance and proving to be a competitive advantage. It's keeping athletes healthier for longer, contributing to numerous innovations in equipment, environments and safety, and it's become a vital part of media content, distribution and fan engagement. Desk side chats about the weekend's rugby just wouldn't be the same without the break down in meters carried, tackles made, which makes my punditry look far more informed than I deserve.

This season I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time at rugby team, London Irish's grounds in Reading. Speaking with the team there gave a real insight into how data in sport is evolving. The data collected is a mix of qualitative self-assessment from the players, considering sleep, muscle soreness, stress levels and a general wellness score. This is combined with objective data taken directly from each player's GPS unit, in-game and training performance. The objective analytic data is combined with the subjective self-assessments to create what is known as an RPE figure - a rate of perceived exertion. If the players are running more and their RPE is going down, the training is going well and they're getting fitter. A reverse score can suggest long-term fatigue or overtraining.

But the impact doesn't stop at the sport itself, it's also opening up new revenue streams and growing the sports betting industry at a rapid rate. As data makes its way into the profit and loss columns of sports business balance sheets attitudes to data protection and management are becoming more grown up too.

Earlier this year the International Tennis Federation (ITF), signed a $70 million deal with data company Sportradar to give exclusive access to real-time scores and statistics. For the ITF, theft or loss of that data would represent a huge risk to one of their most significant revenue streams, and thus the future of Tennis' governing body.

When it comes to performance data, the tracking of this for competitive advantage raises the thorny issue of cheating. If data really is the difference between victory and defeat, then knowing your enemy could be incredibly valuable. The secrecy we see already in Formula One around the designs of cars and the information gathered from the sensors about design performance and driver behaviour could become the standard.

If somehow gleaning data on your opposition could help you plan a strategy to overcome them, protecting that becomes vital. However where we're more likely to see impact is in contracts. If you're trying to sell a player, or if a sports person is trying to negotiate a new contract, information on their performance, propensity to injury and even predictions on future performance will affect their value and how those negotiations play out.

Like any other business, the data within the sports industry could be exposed to hacking risks. Last year Tour de France cyclist Chris Frome was subject to a data hack. Personal performance data of a ride that was central to his victory in the Tour that year was stolen and began to appear on social networks in an effort to discredit him, suggesting he had been doping to achieve that level of performance. But it's not only archive data that is vulnerable.

Most athletes wear some kind of wearable technology and research from the Symantec Threat Intelligence team has found that these devices have multiple security risks. With a cheaply built Bluetooth scanners our intelligence team was able to sit at the end of a park run race and 'sniff up' the data from wearables worn by amateur runners. The over the air communications between wearables / GPS units and smartphone apps or servers processing and storing information can often be a weak point. This connection can provide access to logins and security credentials and also allow for hackers to force commands through to the server for execution - exposing the potential for a major security breach.

With more and more sensitive athlete data gathered and revenue streams at risk, sporting organisations could be exposed to the kind of hacks we're seeing across all manner of different companies. However in sport there's a tension between the desire to expose this information in the name of fan engagement and entertainment, and a desire to keep things secretive. In the future timing and access will be everything and I for one can't wait to see how it plays out.

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