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Expert Insights: How sports analytics is empowering better decision-making

Analytics is slowly changing the face of the sports industry as we know it. Data-driven insights are being used to improve the team and individual performance, and to get that all-important edge over the competition. But what exactly is sports analytics? And how is it being used?

What better way to get answers to these questions than asking an expert himself!

Gaurav Sundararaman

A Senior Stats Analyst at ESPN currently based in Bangalore, India. With over 10 years of experience in the field of analytics, Gaurav worked as a Research Analyst and a consultant in the initial phase of his career. He then ventured into sports analytics in 2012, and played a major role in the Analytics division of SportsMechanics India Pvt. Ltd. where he was the Analytics Consultant for the T20 World Cup winning West Indies team in 2016.

 

In this interview, Gaurav takes us through the current landscape of sports analytics, and talks about how analytics is empowering better decision-making in sports.

Key Takeaways

  • Sports analytics pertains to finding actionable, useful insights from sports data which teams can use to gain competitive advantage over the opposition
  • Instincts backed by data make on and off-field decisions more powerful and accurate
  • Rise of IoT and wearable technology has boosted sports analytics. With more data available for analysis, insights can be unique and very helpful
  • Analytics is being used in sports right from improving player performance to optimizing ticket prices and understanding fan sentiments
  • Knowledge of  tools for data collection, analysis and visualization such as R, Python and Tableau is essential for a sports analyst
  • Thorough understanding of the sport, up to date skillset and strong communication with players and management are equally important factors to perform efficient analytics
  • Adoption of analytics within sports has been slow, but steady. More and more teams are now realizing the benefits of sports analytics and are adopting an analytics-based strategy

Complete Interview

Analytics today is finding widespread applications in almost every industry today – how has the sports industry changed over the years? What role is analytics playing in this transformation?

The sports industry has been relatively late in adopting analytics. That said, the use of analytics in sports has also varied geographically. In the west, analytics plays a big role in helping teams, as well as individual athletes, take up decisions. Better infrastructure and a quick adoption of the latest trends in technology is an important factor here. Also, investment in sports starts from a very young age in the west, which also makes a huge difference.  In contrast, many countries in Asia are still lagging behind when it comes to adopting analytics, and still leverage on traditional techniques to solve problems. A combination of analytics with traditional knowledge from experience would go a long way in helping teams, players and businesses succeed.

Previously the sports industry was a very close community. Now with the advent of analytics, the industry has managed to expand its horizon. We witness more non-sportsmen playing a major part in the decision making. They understand the dynamics of the sports business and how to use data-driven insights to influence the same.

Many major teams across different sports such as Football (Soccer), Cricket, American Football, Basketball and more have realized the value of data and analytics. How are they using it? What advantages does analytics offer to them?

One thing I firmly believe is that analytics can’t replace skills or can’t guarantee wins. What it can do is ensure there is logic towards certain plans and decisions. Instincts backed by data make the decisions more powerful.

I always tell the coaches or players – Go with your gut and instincts as Plan A. If it does not work out your fall back could be Plan B based on trends and patterns derived from data. It turns out to be a win-win for both. Analytics offers a neutral perspective which sometimes players or coaches may not realize. Each sport has a unique way of applying analytics to make decisions and obviously, as analysts, we need to understand the context and map the relevant data.

As far as using the analytics is concerned, the goals are pretty straightforward – be the best, beat the opponents and aim for sustained success. Analytics helps you achieve each of these objectives.

The rise of IoT and wearable technology over the last few years has been incredible. How has it affected sports, and sports analytics, in particular?

It is great to see that many companies are investing in such technologies. It is important to identify where wearables and IoT can be used in sport and where it can cause maximum impact. These devices allow in-game monitoring of players, their performance, and their current physical state.

Also, I believe more than on-field, these technologies would be very useful in engaging fans as well. Data derived from these devices could be used in broadcasting as well as providing a good experience for fans in the stadiums. This will encourage more and more people to watch games in stadiums and not in the comfort of their homes.

We have already seen a beginning with a few stadiums around the world leveraging technology (IoT). The Mercedes Benz stadium (home of Atlanta Falcons) has a high tech stadium powered by IBM. Sacramento is building a state-of-the-art facility for the Sacramento Kings. This is just the start, and it will only get better with time.

How does one become a sports analyst? Are there any particular courses/certifications that one needs to complete in order to become one? Can you share with us your journey in sports analytics?

To be honest there are no professional courses yet in India to become an Analyst. There are a couple of colleges which have just started offering Sports Analytics as a course in their Post-Graduation Program. However, there are a few companies (Sports Mechanics and Kadamba Technologies in Chennai) that offer jobs that can enable you to become a Sports Analyst if you are really good.  If you are a freelancer then my advice would be to ensure you brand yourself well and showcase your knowledge through social media platforms and get a breakthrough via contacts.

Post my MBA, Sports Mechanics (a leader in this space), a company based in Chennai were looking for someone to work to start their data practice. I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I worked for 4 years there and was able to learn a lot about the industry and what works and what does not. Being a small company, I was lucky to don multiple hats and work on different projects across the value chain. I moved and joined the lovely team Of ESPNCricinfo where I work for their stats team.

What are the tools and frameworks that you use for your day to day tasks? How do they make your work easier?

There are no specific tools or frameworks. It depends on the enterprise you are working for. Usually, they are proprietary tools of the company. Most of these tools are used either to collect, mine or visualize data. Interpreting the information and presenting it in a manner in which users understand is important and that is where certain applications or frameworks are used. However to be ready for the future it would be good to be skilled on tools that support data collection, analysis and visualization namely R, Python and Tableau, to name a few.

Do sports analysts have to interact with players and the coaching staff directly? How do you communicate your insights and findings with the relevant stakeholders?

Yes, they have to interact with players and management directly. If not, the impact will be minimal. Communicating insights is very important in this industry. Too much analysis could lead to paralysis. We need to identify what exactly each player or coach is looking for, based on their game and try to provide them the information in a crisp manner which helps them make decisions on and off the field. For each stakeholder the magnitude of the information provided is different. For the coach and management, the insights can be in detail while for the players we need to keep it short and to the point.

The insights you generate must not only be limited to enhancing the performance of a team on the field but much more than that. Could you give us some examples?

Insights can vary. For the management, it could deal with how to maximise the revenue or save some money in an auction. For coaches, it could help them know about his team’s as well as the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses from a different perspective. For captains, data could help in identifying some key strategies on the field. For example, in Cricket, it could help the captain determine which bowler to bring on to which opposition batsmen, or where to place the fielders.

Off the field, one area where analytics could play a big role would be in grassroots development and tracking of an athlete from an early age to ensure he is prepared for the biggest stage. Monitoring performance, improving physical attributes by following a specific regimen, assessing injury record and designing specific training programs, etc. are some ways in which this could be done.

What are some of the other challenges that you face in your day to day work?

Growth in this industry can be slow sometimes. You need to be very patient, work hard and ensure you follow the sport very closely. There are not many analytical obstacles as such, but understanding the requirements and what exactly the data needs are can be quite a challenge.

Despite all the buzz, there are quite a few sports teams and organizations who are still reluctant to adopt an analytics-based strategy – why do you think is that the case? What needs to change?

The reason for the slow adoption could be the lack of successful case studies and the awareness. In most sports when so many decisions are taken on the field sometimes the players’ ability and skill seems far more superior to anything else. As more instances of successful execution of data-based trends come up, we are likely to see more teams adopting the data-based strategy.

Like I mentioned earlier, analytics needs to be used to make the coach and captain take the most logical and informed decisions. Decision-makers need to be aware of the way it is used and how much impact it can cause.  This awareness is vital towards increasing the adoption of analytics in sports.

Where do you see sports analytics in the next 5-10 years?

Today in sports many decisions are taken on gut feeling, and I believe there should be a balance. That is where analytics can help. In sports like Cricket, only around 30% of the data is used and there is more emphasis given to video. Meanwhile, if we look at Soccer or Basketball, the usage of data and video analytics is close to 60-70% of its potential. Through awareness and trying out new plans based on data, we can increase usage of analytics in cricket to 60-70 % in the next few years.

Despite the current shortcomings, It is fair to say that there is a progressive and positive change at the grassroots level across the world. Data-based coaching and access to technology are slowly being made available to teams as well as budding sportsmen/women. Another positive is that the investment in the sports industry is growing steadily. I am confident that in a couple of years, we will see more job opportunities in sports. Maybe in five years, the entire ecosystem would be more structured and professional. We would witness analytics playing a much bigger role in helping stakeholders make informed decisions, as data-based insights become even more crucial.

Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring sports analysts?

My only advice would be – Be passionate, build a strong network of people around you, and constantly be on the lookout for opportunities. Also, it is important to keep updating your skill-set in terms of the tools and techniques needed to perform efficient and faster analytics. Newer and better tools keep coming up very quickly, which make your work easier and faster. Be on the lookout for such tools!

One also needs to identify their own niche based on their strengths and try to build on that. The industry is on the cusp of growth and as budding analysts, we need to be prepared to take off when the industry matures. Build your brand and talk to more people in the industry – figure out what you want to do to keep yourself in the best position to grow with the industry.

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Amey Varangaonkar

Data Science Enthusiast. A massive science fiction and Manchester United fan. Loves to read, write and listen to music.

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2 thoughts on “Expert Insights: How sports analytics is empowering better decision-making”

  1. Good article, I completely agree with your views on how Sports technology is changing sports and its outlook along with the pace of the game, I still remember the demand for Dartfish from 2012 Olympics recreased by more than 300% by 2016 Rio Games.
    This clarly proves how people are adapting to the new technology to improve their performance.

    1. Hi Ranjit,

      Thanks for your response. I agree, more people have started to realize the value analytics, and technology in general, brings to any sport.

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