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Will Big Data Transform Sports?

Daily fantasy sports are almost certainly the cutting edge of number crunching in many professional sports.

Whilst the Brad Pitt movie MoneyBall helped to widen the understanding of data analysis as a way to select a baseball team, there will be many games – such as tennis and golf – where individual players will find it hard to justify the expense of a data analysis team.

In other sports, such as baseball, American football and cricket and soccer in Europe, there are huge internal resources being deployed by clubs to understand themselves and their opponents as closely as possible.

Big data is now having a major impact on the way spectators are able to enjoy and experience their favourite sports as well. The meteoric growth of daily fantasy sports in the United States shows just how many fans enjoy this form of entertainment. In Europe fantasy football is nowhere as popular yet, but it is growing quickly.

These are still very early days for data analysis in sports. Currently, most professional clubs and all bookmakers have some sort of team that monitors player performance. However, the real professionals of the betting world also have their own in-house teams of quants. In this regard, sports betting is well on its way to replicating the data and analysis arms race that financial markets have undergone with high-frequency trading.

As has happened in financial markets, such advanced use of technology draws a very clear line between the wealthiest and the rest. As if their advantage was not large enough, now they can put even more daylight between themselves and the trailing pack.

As was described in Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys (Lewis was also the author of the book MoneyBall), the financial traders went so far as to housing their computers in the same building as the stock exchange machines to cut nanoseconds off the time it takes for their information to travel. They also had cables laid between New York and Chicago to make the execution of their own trades faster.

Sports are not at this stage yet, but it seems inevitable that whatever the sporting equivalent happens to be, is being planned under great secrecy somewhere. For now, a love of sports and an exceptional ability with maths and algorithmic programming looks like a great set of skills to combine for a lucrative career.

In fact, daily fantasy sports has already made it possible to earn a very good income as an independent. Some of the top players in the world are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in prize money profits. There are almost certainly some earning in the millions, though they do their utmost to remain low profile.

This means that for now, big data in sports has begun to impact the clubs and players, bookmakers and the savviest supporters – it is hard to imagine how much more change is likely to happen in the next ten years.

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