Data in sports: learning how to win at the cost of the game?

Data by Janneke Staaks / Flickr
Data by Janneke Staaks / Flickr

Leadership, ability, flair, invention and talent are all words synonymous with any good sporting team. But are these the attributes by which players and teams are chosen? Measurement of the intangibles is no longer good enough when picking a modern force in team sports. Data, statistics and the manner in which they are being analysed is becoming increasingly important. It is something that has been prevalent in the US for some time but is only starting to take hold in Europe now.

Data Deluge by Will Lion / Flickr
Data Deluge by Will Lion / Flickr

At a recent talk on sports data held by in Trinity College, Dr Tom Markham of Sports Interactive gave an interesting insight into how the data gathered for the game Football Manager is now being used by real football clubs to find and buy players. Sports Interactive signed an agreement with Prozone Sports that sees their database -that has been collected and refined over two decades – being used in an online analysis platform designed to support football clubs in the field of talent identification and player recruitment. Dr. Markham has a PHD in football finance and is head of business development at Sports Interactive who own Football Manager.

“Our data base is 600,000 strong and there’s 250 different parameters. In the game you might see strength 20, handling 2, heading 20 if you’re not a goal keeper for example,” said Dr. Markham.

Every possible area of a soccer player’s performance is measured and given a grading or score. Football Manager has so much data that even from a logistical and financial sense it would seem foolish not to use what they have available. As lucrative as some modern European football clubs are, most don’t have the resources to watch every second or third division match in Ghana or the Ukraine. The data available from football manager can help a club find that fast left sided winger or goal scoring central midfielder. The role of Big data is becoming increasingly important in many areas of society and sport is no exception.

But what of qualities such as leadership or drive? Are these things quantifiable? According to Dr Markham, some aspects of a player’s commitment are measurable:

“We do look at some of the emotional stuff behind the game. The likelihood of someone being sent off, their background, if their a bit of a hothead etc. So maybe not directly leadership which is a difficult thing to quantify but you could have some of these parameters that together could reflect that someone is a better leader than if there not,” he said.

Dr Markham believes that data has its place but it’s not the be all and end all of player selection.

“I would never go down the route of letting a computer make all of the decisions, it points you in the right direction and you marry it up with reality and you get the best rewards from it,” he said.

Data by Janneke Staaks / Flickr
Data by Janneke Staaks / Flickr

Players’ attitudes have also changed dramatically in those team sports that have become highly commercialised. In the premiership, for example it is becoming increasingly unlikely that any one player will spend their entire career at one club.  A sense of pride and belonging in any one club at player level is almost a thing of the past. Football is becoming an increasingly lucrative business where there seems less and less time for sentiment. A microscopic analysis of every aspect of the game to achieve success and hence financial gain is just part of the evolution.

Dr Markham believes that data is becoming more important: “The game moves on, so if everyone else is using it and getting a little bit of an advantage,” there is no reason why a team wouldn’t use it.

Many who watched the last six nations championship will testify that sometimes teams know too much about each other and the resulting matches can be dogged affairs. Teams study the data, statistics and tactics of the other team so closely they know how to stop them from playing and teams basically just cancel each other out. There is no doubt this is taking away from the championship as a spectacle as was proven by the quality of the games on the last day when teams threw caution to the wind. What resulted were three highly entertaining, flowing games of rugby.

If players are to be increasingly measured on data and statistics, then they will have nowhere to hide and this should be a positive thing. Players will strive to be better to produce better data in order to be picked and this should improve the quality of the game. But does this constitute an improvement in entertainment value? If clubs, players and managers are being paid astronomical sums – allowed by the money created by TV rights – do they not have a responsibility to entertain? Is there some balance to be struck between microscopic management of all the parameters and the entertainment value of a sport to the paying public? Ultimately, the answer is as long as the public pays;  managers and teams will employ whatever methods they deem necessary to win.





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