Advanced Analytics in Professional Sports

The keywords Hadoop, Big Data, Machine Learning and AI no longer exclusively belong to the boardrooms of top IT companies. As the Advanced Analytics is becoming more mature, different types of businesses are trying to find ways to make use of it to improve their operations. Professional sports leagues were one of the early adapters of Advanced Analytics. For years, they have been using it to optimize their processes, to improve their player selection and to increase the fan engagement. They have been using descriptive analytics to create sophisticated dashboards which visually summarize real-time sports statistics in various sophisticated ways. The recent technological advances in techniques, cameras, and sensors have allowed different professional sports leagues to go beyond the traditional use-cases. Now they have started using Advanced Analytics to better train their players, to improve draft picks, to improve the overall fan experience and to even predict injuries of the players.

Let us look into the specific approaches taken by the major North American professional sports Leagues in the fiercely competitive world of professional sports. Among the four major leagues, the National Football League (NFL) is, perhaps, the heaviest user of the Advanced Analytics techniques. These days NFL coaches are using player tracking data in practice to aid with coaching. They are searching for new ways to help quarterbacks practice and are developing new techniques that involve the use of virtual simulators. The usefulness of new playing strategies is first tested in these virtual simulators before they are actually used by the players. The NFL was one of the first leagues to make some of the data about track speed and distance covered by players publicly available. In 2016 NFL placed tracking sensors in its footballs for the first time. It also started tracking player movement through sensors in shoulder pads. It definitely opened up a whole new set of possibilities for teams, players, media and fans of the league. And there is an ongoing effort on how to best use this enormous amount of data that is produced during each of the NFL games.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) also extensively uses the advanced analytics techniques. NBA has used video feeds to collect the data about the player and then they process and use it to improve the playing techniques. At every NBA game, cameras positioned at various angles to record and log the movement of the players and the ball. The NBA has been partnering with tech company SportVU since 2006 to install motion-tracking cameras in every arena. Six cameras track player and ball positions 25 times a second, and those data are provided to both media and fans after the game ends. These cameras track the on-court coordinates of each player 25 times a second throughout the game, then combine it with additional information to have it correspond with items such as ball touches, dribbles and shots. NBA also uses descriptive analytics to engage fans. The NBA’s statistics site, http://stats.nba.com, has already racked up over 20 million unique views, which shows the success of such approach. Following the lead of NFL, the NBA recently announced that it would make SportVU tracking data available to the public. The motive is to engage the fans by allowing them  fans to deepen their understanding of the game,

Major League Baseball (MLB) has also been trying to maximize the use of Advanced Analytics. It started using player tracking technology in 2015.  The league uses cameras and radar technology in every ballpark to now map statistics such as spin rate on pitches, track outfielders’ speed and their probability of making a catch on a fly ball.  This data can be found on the league’s official home baseballsavant.com. It can tell how far a player actually travels on a touchdown run and how fast he goes. Recently some of this data has been made publicly available for public consumption.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is also left behind in the use of Advanced Analytics. Certain teams like Ottawa Senators are using sensors in hockeysand pucks to optimize the training of the players. NHL has also added shot total metrics, also known as Corsi to its website. Interesting data statistics are now publicly available for fans during a game.

There are plenty of other websites that use advanced analytics to present the dashboards summarizing sports performance trends. One of them is Sports-reference.com which provides lots searchable data across all sports. There are other sports specific websites such as FanGraphs in baseball, Natural Stat Trick in hockey, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus for the NFL, while ESPN has its own advanced stats for different sports. Currently, it seems that there is a great appetite the use of advanced analytics in professional sports that is set to grow from the millions to the multiple billions of dollars over the next few years.

AUTHOR: Imran Ahmad

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