How big data will change sports: Once, Ortec TSS and SAP

As ‘Moneyball’ by Michael Lewis already showed, team managers as well as sports fans are eager for stats and data about teams, players and leagues. And we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible: a recent announcement by SAP made that all the more clearer.

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Big data and sports were already a thing before SAP took an interest. In my previous life as a magazine writer, I already wrote an article about the solutions that Ortec TSS is bringing to the soccer field. Ortec TSS has up to 4 people per game inputting game situations in their database. They not only input the actions, but they also assign a score to each action. Essentially, any action that a player does that keeps the ball in his team (or results in a goal) gets him points.

For an attacking player, that would be things like giving a successful pass. This might seem entirely logical, but it also means that some actions that seem “threatening” but don’t result in a goal – like a shot that misses the goal – get penalized.

Said prof. Gerard Sierksma, who developed the system and sold it to Ortec TSS: “I sometimes hear a commentor say: beautiful shot – when the player missed. Well, for our system, that’s not a beautiful shot. You lost the ball, and that’s how we record it.”

The solution is already used by media like De Telegraaf and Het Laatste Nieuws to give  a realtime idea of which team is dominant in the game. But it’s also used by coaches and teams like Ajax (Netherlands) and Club Brugge (Belgium). After each game, coaches receive a very detailed report (up to 40 pages) of the actions of all its players. Coaches can use these massive amounts data to determine who to put on the field next week, or which talent to scout to fill a void in their line up.

I’ve seen some of the reports, and it’s hard to keep awake when looking through them: there’s just too much data. But if you know what to look for, it does help teams to uncover patterns that are not immediately clear to coaches and players. For instance, Ajax “data” coach Michele Santoni told me last year that the team uncovered how dangerous Jan Vertonghen is when he attacks with the ball on the foot:

“Out of 45 situations with Jan dribbling, he created 29 scoring opportunities. That’s huge. That’s a great place to start when talking to Jan about how to create more of those situations.” (source: HUMO)

A similar solution is the one from ONCE sports, a Croatian startup founded by Ivan Ilecic – chief analyst of the Croatian national football team.

But while Ortec and Once are startups or at least smaller players, the field is apparently getting interesting enough for the big guns too. Just this weekend, SAP announced that they are working with the San Francisco 49′ers to develop a tool for analysis and scouting in the American football league NFL. “We had a bottleneck in our scouting,” admitted the team’s CTO, Kunal Malik. “SAP and I were talking about partnerships already, and since this was high priority for us, I brought it up.” (source: CNBC)

The idea is to aggregate all the data that exists about players. In a sport like the NFL, there are huge amounts of data about every player – and there are tens of thousands of players. This means terabytes of scouting reports, video, test results, physical and psychological tests. SAP says it can now combine all the data in one database and serve it up when needed “faster than anyone else”.

Says Mike Morini, general manager for cloud at SAP: “Scouts would come into meetings with binders and pens, the walls full of whiteboards and magnets.” With SAP’s solution, all the info would be ready at the touch of a finger on the iPad. Morini says that the work it does for the NFL is “a big drive” for the company. SAP is also working with the NFL to revive its fantasy football platform.

After that, SAP will go to other sports: “We’re going after the NFL right away and then push into other major sports,” said Morini.

As far as I can tell, none of these solutions work in real time yet, but that’s a matter of time. Wearable computing will first make it unnecessary to post 4 people on the sidelines to input all the actions. As prof. Gerard Sierksma, who developed the original idea for Ortec TSS told me last year, it’s technologically feasible to outfit every player with sensors.

Those sensors can track not only the distances run by a player, but also when they kick or head the ball, where they are on the pitch, and how their biometrics are. A sensor in the ball could tell you where it is at all times. At that moment you have a realtime “holographic digital recording” of the game that can serve up stats and information about players in realtime.

Of course, the interntional soccer world isn’t very pro-tech (they are only now coming round to the idea of having goal line technology). But it’s probably a matter of time before these applications are used on the bench by coaches to inform their strategy, tactics and substitutions. At that point, games will not only pit teams against each other, but also their algorithm suppliers.

Oh, and one more thing: according to a lot of research, Sierksma told me, the difference between world class athletes and mere mortals is their sense of balance. He mentioned Lionel Messi in particular as an example of a player who creates space by just finding his balance quicker than his opponents. If you want to crush your amateur game next Saturday: start spending more time on one of those balancing balls.

[Photo: cliff1066, Flickr][CNBC]

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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