We’ve heard a lot about big data in the past year, along with companies’ quests to harness it. Perhaps the biggest big-data mine is the field of sports: In-game statistics pile up in heaps of data; fans clamor for in-depth, real-time analysis; and a player’s physical movements offer a new peek into the mechanics of our bodies. And at this point, with some companies simply collecting data for collection’s sake, businesses and sports franchises have figured out how to repackage it artfully to create new experiences for both athletes and their fans.
Roger Wood, founder of the San-Francisco think tank Art+Data, together with Yvonne Buysman, created a top-10 list of successful sports-oriented companies diving into large pools of data and developing a product or experience dripping with financial value.
While releasing Art+Data’s debut list this fall—the firm plans more lists for art, government, and commerce—Wood says it was only logical to start with sports. "In sports, terabytes of data are being collected per performance," he says. "It is a fertile opportunity. There is so much collection opportunity in one place."
But what good is all that information without a purpose? Or without a compelling way to present it all? As data now drives product design—right down to how the exact weight distribution of your small toe in a Nike running shoe informs the next generation of products—Wood says the best companies are the ones using the power of real-time information to their advantage.
Wood’s favorite examples come from the world of water sports: A company on the top-10 list, Australia’s QSTC, has designed a way to measure actual displacement of water with each stroke by attaching small devices to the swimmer, whether in open water or a pool. Not only does this information give the athlete a better understanding of their own work rate but it also allows coaches to better advise a swimmer’s stroke.
"With the right kind of data used in the right way, you can see that when a swimmer starts to tire, they need to adjust their stroke so they are displacing more water per stroke with less power," Wood says. "If you’re a sports geek, this is exciting stuff. That is how you get elite-level performance."
Crafting the tools athletes use in their quest for athletic supremacy requires gathering untold amounts of pinpoint data. Wood surmises, somewhat provocatively, that the future of sports includes even building the actual athlete into a better version of themselves, whether through prosthesis or otherwise.
But Art+Data isn’t only about product creation that propels the athlete. It involves experience, too. A majority of companies on the list—Sportvision, SAP, the San Francisco 49ers, Hawk-eye, Nike, Synergy Sports, and Wimbledon/IBM—made the list, at least in part, due to an enhanced consumer experience, either by enriching the way the user trains, as in the Nike+ system of quantifying an individual’s exact workout movements, or consumer sports, such as Sportvision giving us the near-exactness of football’s famous yellow first-down line for television viewing. "We are actually altering the design in real time as data comes in," Wood says. "I think we can extend human performance and experience to a completely new level."
Traditional design—such as for a stadium—used human perception to lead the design process. Now, Wood argues, data can enhance the building process to offer real-time amenities. Companies already offer more information streaming to smartphones or televisions, so what if they started adding in-game experiences with that information? Instead of simply quantifying the force of a football hit, what about seats that vibrate based on that force or, say, the heart rate of the quarterback? "Man, oh man, you could actually damn near feel the quarterback’s pulse," Wood says. "That will transform everything. I think audience technologies are the most viscerally exciting applications of design and analytics."
Already we’re seeing these piles of data turn into something far more than information, resulting in products and experiences. But Wood says this is only the start.
Sportvision turns its FieldF/x technologies and over 500,000 visual points in a typical athletic contest into information-rich graphics for television audiences of football, NASCAR, and the Olympics. The pioneers of the 1st and 10 Line for football (that fancy digital yellow line), K-Zone for baseball, and NASCAR’s TrackPass RaceView, Sportvision calculates data into design-friendly knowledge.
The NBA wanted to make its statistics accessible to fans, so it hired SAP to apply its analytical software—used primarily in the business sector—to make information that was previously only available to NBA employees open to all fans on the NBA’s website. The enhanced offerings aim to create real-time connections between fans and newly available stats.
The NFL team’s new Santa Clara stadium, set to open in 2014, has the 49ers already thinking technology access above all else. Giving fans access to data they’ve never had before while in their seats steps up the fan experience, especially as roughly 30% of all fans—so far—use personal technology while attending live sporting events. The new stadium promises fans access to apps to view multiple camera angles of replays, listen to radio feeds, check stadium traffic, order food, and even scout the lines at concessions and bathrooms.
The ball-tracking technology of this British subsidiary of Sony uses numerous high-frame-rate cameras placed at strategic positions within a tennis venue, for example, to determine exactly where a ball was hit in relation to the out-of-bounds line in mere seconds. The technology has not only revolutionized instant replay in cricket, soccer, and tennis—it can also provide in-depth bio-mechanical analysis of individual player strokes. Using this pinpoint data, coaches can design strokes and racquets to customize an individual player’s needs.
Monitoring athletic performance in swimming, especially open-water swimming as seen during a triathlon, was nearly impossible. The varying factors were simply too steep. But Queensland Sports Technology Cluster in Australia developed micro-sensor data capture that provides detailed 3-D analysis of a swimmer’s movement, including measuring the volume of water displaced with each stroke.
Advanced Motion Measurement presents a system of biomechanical analysis during the "kinematic sequence" that captures a golfer’s motion in 3-D, offering a new range of data points to dissect a swing and movement. The information can address a player’s needs, from a power-generating viewpoint all the way to an injury-reducing strategy. The ability to measure and analyze the data has also allowed Titleist to develop new highly customized clubs.
Oracle Team USA utilizes data both in creating America’s Cup-winning catamaran designs and while racing. By teaming with Ruckus Wireless, the smart Wi-Fi technology continuously steers signals around obstacles as environmental conditions change. Real-time data is essential during a race, so Oracle uses Ruckus’s ability to transmit critical telemetry, wind and load data from sensors located throughout the boat. That data also helps Oracle Team USA when processing post-race information to better inform future catamaran design and racing strategy.
Nike has created an entire line of products around taking previously unquantifiable athletic data and disseminating it wirelessly into easy-to-comprehend Apple-supported apps. The Nike+ systems boast more than 6 million "connected athletes" using sensors in cell phones, running shoes, basketball shoes, bracelets, and more to track movements and quantify the data while transmitting it back to Apple apps for personal consumption.
By analyzing over 1,000 data points of a player’s movement during a contest, Synergy Sport’s Digital DNA can support "AI-like" representations of players and teams. The data can drive virtual experiences but also couple with statistics to provide real-time updates and statistical views of a player in almost any situation.
As is the custom at Wimbledon, even the data is beautiful. IBM showcased SlamTracker this past year to offer online match-by-match analysis based on 39 million data points across 7 years’ worth of data, all displayed in a gorgeous and easily consumable online experience. Using IBM predictive analytics technology, IBM found patterns and styles for players when they win. Leveraging that knowledge against an opponent’s, IBM determined the key moves for each competitor in every match and updated them throughout the live event.