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Soccer Gets Smart: MLS Launches League-Wide Data Viz System

A real-time data visualization system will leverage the power of Big Data to help coaches make better decisions.

Soccer Gets Smart: MLS Launches League-Wide Data Viz System

Recently, Major League Soccer and Adidas hosted “the world’s first smart soccer game.” As players battled it out in the 2012 All Star Game in Philly, they wore a small green device nestled in between their shoulder blades. The cells transmitted wireless data to a fieldside base station, where it was be pushed to iPads held by the team’s coaching staff. Coaches (and eventually, fans) could monitor biometrics on their players, including heart rate, speed, and power, packaged in a slick user interface. It’s a proprietary software built on their MiCoach system, and it’s been in development for years. The expectation is that every MLS team will use it during the 2013 season.

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“Data can make the difference,” said Adidas interactive VP Paul Gaudio. “It can help coaches and trainers make better decisions. MiCoach isn’t just about getting more out of players, but also about knowing when to back off–for example, when an injured player is recovering.” Teams across the US have tested the system, and thus far, coaches seem to approve–though some players were reportedly nonplussed with their new mandatory hardware.

Adidas and the MLS see MiCoach as a tool that could help turn soccer into America’s next great national pastime. Some readers will undoubtedly scoff, but MLS Senior VP Nelson Rodriguez notes that the current generation of young soccer fans don’t know an America without a national soccer league–the same generation that doesn’t know American without handheld digital devices.

And the 2013 MLS rollout is just the beginning. MiCoach could help coaches in any sport “navigate the rhythms of a long season,” added Rodriguez. Adidas plans to adapt the MiCoach system for broader use, though they can’t say when or how much such a setup will cost.

The technology is remarkably cool, but it also conjures up an unsavory question we’re forced to consider frequently these days: In our race to capitalize on Big Data, are we drowning ourselves in information? Advancements in statistical analysis is making professional sports easier to predict and strategize, as depicted in Moneyball, for example. But whether it will truly improve the game is debatable.

Adidas CEO Herbert Hainer says that MiCoach will take “take sports in America to a higher level.” He’s at least partially correct. The rush of being able to look down at your mobile device and see how your favorite player’s heartbeat is changing as he scores will be incredible. And coaches will suddenly have access to amazingly deep well of information, letting them tailor games and training regimens to fit each player’s unique needs.

On the other hand, games could become just another screen-based experience for fans–it’s interesting to imagine a scenario where stadiums are filled with fans hunched over their phones. Likewise, it’ll be interesting to see how coaches adapt. “The system will augment the intuition of coaches,” says Rodriguez, but could it also hinder those hard-won instincts, if they spend game time glued to their iPads?

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These are interesting questions to ponder, and they’ll continue to confront us, as more industries tap into vast pools of information using increasingly inexpensive technology. You know what they say–data: it’s a hell of a drug.

[Top image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock]

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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