Interview: A Look At How Data is Changing Sports Today

Every other year is a big year in sports broadcasting. So far in 2014 the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil pushed the boundaries of sports broadcast and digital delivery records. Additionally, right now we also have the Tour de France. One topic that is top of mind during these global events is the use of data in sports and how it is dramatically changing many aspects of the game not only for players, but also for coaches, the media, spectators, and worldwide audiences. We spoke with Jason Danielson, NetApp’s media and entertainment expert and Jonathan Kelly NetApp’s sports business solution architect to get their perspectives after talking with colleagues and customers around the world.


We often hear about how data is used by players for performance or for wearable technology, but as we’ve seen recently data is used in many other ways that we may not realize, can you elaborate?

Response: Sports is actually quite a broad category. If we generalize, most areas of sports have in fact embraced data in several ways, some are “game-changing” no pun intended! It probably makes sense to categorize these various use-cases.

  • Game day analysis: Coaching and scouting of current or new talent, pinpointing how a bicyclist breaks out of the pack or how a player moves against a particular opponent is a popular use of data today made popular with the movie Moneyball
  • Broadcast Sports Production: We see this all the time, the data for spectator programming, replays, etc. to bring viewers more value add, cool game data facts, and relevant real-time data sourced by broadcasters.
  • Broadcast and Digital Distribution: This is the multi-platform distribution of content and the use of social media and consumer-generated content in the broadcast. It also includes using metrics to determine what is “hitting home” and how to charge advertisers. 
  • Advertising: The promotional and commercial aspects around the broadcasts and live events as well as the associated metrics are big opportunities to use advertising to not just build a brand, but to build a community as well.
  • Fans: The lifeblood of sports, they are spectators at the event and the viewers at home, or on the go. I talked to one World Cup enthusiast who watched every game he could and he did it on his iPad, from two different media outlets.
  • Motion Capture: This consists of tracking the motion data of the players for use in the future such as avatars or “games of the game.”

Can you give any recent examples of how data was used in ways that we may not have considered months or years ago? World Cup? Tour de France? Other?

Response: Very interesting question. Some examples:

Tour de France: There is a trend developing in news where media outlets are soliciting consumer-generated content (videos shot on phones) using contribution websites or pulling content from social media sites, to distribute to their audiences. Fans are then incentivized for it. In the case of the Tour de France where the race stretches across 100 miles of rural roadway and the venue changes every day you can’t afford to get broadcast cameras everywhere you would want them to be. This is an opportunity for fans to leverage their mobile cameras to capture photos and video to share online and contribute to a media outlet. The safety of riders, with spectators racing to get “the best angle” has been questioned and is a valid concern, but this data is impacting how the race is viewed.

World Cup: 4K resolution, which was a minimal experiment at the last World Cup four years ago, turned into a full game production in Brazil this year. Also known as ultra high definition television, it was made available as a stream for an entire game with a full regimen of cameras and a complete production truck outfitted with 4K equipment. A 4K video frame has four times the pixels of an HD frame and therefore, from a data standpoint has four times the data – to stream, to store, to process.

Weather: Not just limited to these specific sporting events and more unknown is how data and weather are being analyzed for athlete behavior. True, player performance, team performance, etc. are obvious uses of data, but getting details about athlete performance due to weather conditions on a historical basis is very progressive. Imagine what this could mean for teams in extreme climate areas? This area is starting to really progress.

What could businesses learn from how sports in general are leveraging data?

Response: It comes down to the association with performance. In sports, you want the best player and in business you want the best employee. The question then becomes how to get the best outcome and optimal performance. Data is the answer for both industries. In sports you either score or not, the metrics are cut and dry. For businesses the winning is profit and revenue, cut and dry only in how you look at it. How you measure that process is something enterprises are working on depending on the sector. You can’t do anything with the data until you understand what you are measuring. Sports, as we have mentioned, has literally leveraged data in so many ways, essentially making the experience of live sports unforgettable globally.

What is next for data in sports?

Response: An experience. Fans want an experience despite all of the innovation in technology and data bringing sports to various mediums, devices, and time zones. In fact, a lot of the expense of programming is going into live sports because of the interest and also value in watching it live. Sports are time sensitive and are ideal for a live broadcast experience, not video on demand as much. An emerging area of the fan experience is monitoring fan behavior, this is still new, but the more responsive a “stadium” or “team” is to the live fans, the more “intense” the experience and hopefully the more revenue for the sporting team. Not as easy for the Tour de France but it is something football or baseball teams can leverage for example.

Another aspect that we will see more of is the building of communities. With the use of the Internet for digital video distribution there is now the ability for interactivity that didn't exist when it was a one-way broadcast.  The ability to build community and interaction is what makes the sport and the advertiser's brand more sticky. Fans, spectators and even players are able to communicate or interact with each other more. It's not just about "paper baseball trading cards" anymore! Advertisers are creating huge communities that are heavily involved in global sporting events. Sports teams provide the ultimate blueprint for building passionate communities.