Innovation Hub: The Next Wave of Sports Analytics

We hear a lot about how giants in tech and e-commerce are using big data to improve business. But what about the role of data in a very different industry, one rooted as much in numbers as in superstition and luck? We’re talking about the world of sport.

Ever since the bestselling book and movie Moneyball, the use of data analytics by professional sports teams has been gaining traction. I discussed some of the innovative uses of big data with Kraft Sports vice president Jessica Gelman and ESPN marketer-turned-MIT lecturer Ben Shields.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit]

Kara Miller: Is it fair to boil sports down to a data problem?

Ben Shields: You have to place data in the proper perspective. It is one way to help solve a problem. If I’m talking to a coach of a basketball team, I have to recognize that team chemistry, momentum, are also at play when you’re devising the best system for your team.

KM: How do players themselves use data?

Jessica Gelman: The beginning of sports analytics was around the valuation of a player. Today, athletes are using analytics on themselves. Within wearable technologies, there are companies like Zebra, Catapult, and Fitbit, which the average athlete wears today. That type of information is becoming even more pronounced.

KM: To what degree are sports franchises gathering data about fans?

JG: The focus for us is engaging and retaining our customers. When your e-mail opens, to when you come into the stadium, to when you make purchases—we track that information. With mobile ticketing, we can know everyone who’s in the building, and that’s going to be very meaningful.

BS: The Holy Grail here is the fan who is the season-ticket holder, who also goes to the website, and is a fan on Facebook and Twitter. Getting that whole picture will be a game-changer.

KM: And how are franchises using that data to change the game experience for fans?

JG: It’s an interesting data issue: are people always being honest in what they’re sharing? We asked recently what Web page people go to when they go to the website, and not one person said that they come to our cheerleader page. It is, actually, the second-most visited page on our website. Based on that feedback, we created a cheerleader cam. People like our cheerleaders. Yes, they are big fans of the team, but there are other elements to the game-day entertainment.

KM: What technological changes do you see happening that will be ubiquitous in the future?

BS: The Oculus headset that Facebook purchased could become more mainstream, so you could think about potential applications of virtual reality to watching sports. We’re at this place where we’re moving toward more fan participation in the games. Look at video games and fantasy sports. These are activities that bring fans closer to playing on the field, or being in the general manager’s office. The more fans can participate in the game, the better it’s going to be for them as spectators.

Mikaela Lefrak contributed to this report.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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