How Can the Sports Industry Up Its Data Analytics Game?

The worldwide interest in gatherings like the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which I attended earlier this month, provides compelling evidence of the importance the sports industry now attaches to data analytics.

The collection and analysis of big data has been part of sport since the 1980s but perhaps only reached the public consciousness after events such as Opta entering English football in 1996 and the use of ‘Sabermetrics’ by the Oakland Athletics that took the financially-uncompetitive baseball team to the playoffs in both 2002 and 2003 — an achievement highlighted by the internationally-renowned book, Moneyball.

More recently, sports teams and franchises — led by those in the US — have expanded their analytical gaze from the pitch up into the stands and beyond, utilising the big data practices they had been using to improve their players’ on-pitch performances to enhance their knowledge of their fans.

Understanding fan behaviours and lifestyles at an individual level can open up a whole new world of possibilities for sports organisations. It can help ensure perfect corporate partnership fits, provide valuable ammunition when negotiating media rights partnerships, increase match attendances and season ticket sales, improve the success of marketing campaigns, assist in the tracking of brand health and spot emerging opportunities.

While some fans may not like to admit it, sport is now big business and big data is a vital tool in establishing competitive advantages both on and off the pitch. That’s why the industry is turning more and more towards its use.

However, according to Forrester Research, most businesses are still far away from maximising the benefits they accrue from the data they are collecting. The influential research and advisory firm observes that many companies have “too much data and too little insight” while being further hamstrung by a poor linkage between insights discovery and business action and the inability to learn from the actions they do take.

Forrester says the answer is for businesses to build ‘systems of insight’, which they describe as “the business discipline and technology to harness insights to consistently turn data into effective action.”

As Dr Russell Walker said at the MIT Sloan conference, “online and apps are not just about selling, but about learning about the customer….passive data is critical”. It’s a function of today’s technology.

A business capability composed of people, process and technology, systems of insight unite developers, data and business experts under the direction of a digital leader, with a budget and an outcome to manage. This set-up allows companies to more easily validate the value of the insights they gain against business outcomes, makes it easier to deliver them to the areas where they can create the most effective actions and, importantly, encourages continuous learning.

I remain hopeful that in five years from now, the senior execs, GM’s and CEO’s running global sports franchises and federations will be, data-hungry, insight-driven professionals, who understand the true value of ‘system of insights’. In an industry that is only just starting to embrace the use of big data analytics to increase revenue and improve customer experience, the application of these principles could prove a game-changer. The first clubs, franchises and organisations that gain the ability to systematically harness data and quickly turn insights into action will certainly be in pole position as the big data revolution continues.