Last Champions League matches, especially Liverpool and Tottenham sensational comebacks may prove that soccer is an unpredictable sport and numbers and analytics can't tie its nature. But the fact is that big data, digital transformation, or machine learning have become the front runners in recent years. What’s more, sports technology has changed the industry for both - athletes and spectators. In this article, I’ll try to point out some game-changing factors that set the pace for the sports industry and our everyday activities.
Numbers have always been a part of sports, but until recently they appeared more often as an interesting fact than as an important analysis. It is commonly believed that big data made an impressive entrance into the world of sports thanks to the analytical approach to baseball described in the book called Moneyball written by Michael Lewis, published in 2003, and a great movie with Brad Pitt based on it. The evidence-based analysis helped the Oakland Athletics become a competitive team despite the relatively small budget.
Investors, clubs, sponsors, and organizations realized that the sports industry is not very different from others and if such branches of business like education or healthcare started implementing innovations, they should do it too.
The truth is that nowadays every sports discipline is trying to implement new technologies, but their development is the most impressive where fans’ interest is the biggest. And what follows, where the revenue is the highest. That’s why soccer was the largest segment in the sports technology market in 2018 - a year when we witnessed a crucial change in the FIFA World Cup history - the introduction of the VAR - video assistant referees. Big data still makes a difference in sports like baseball, football, and basketball. Sports technology market value is predicted to hit the $30 billion in 2024.
How clubs and athletes benefit from sports technology?
Clubs from the most significant leagues jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of innovation development a few years ago. Toronto Raptors decided to work with IBM specialists on their talent evaluation system. IBM created a platform that gathered different kinds of data, like for example, player information or league statistics, which improved and accelerated the decision-making process.
Another example worth mentioning here is Microsoft collaboration with Real Madrid. Thanks to solutions provided by the tech giant, one of the best soccer clubs in the world can make use of data collected during a match or training and analyze it in real-time. Wearables deliver plenty of information about players’ strengths and weaknesses, so the team of analysts and physicians can interpret it and make more conscious decisions. It works pretty well, and I think that the best proof of it is the fact that Real Madrid won the Champions League title three times in a row and we can imagine that the big data created the background for this success.
Other clubs also make use of big data, and it is an especially effective way to improve new signings - analysis based on evidence reduces the risk of contracting wrong players that won’t suit the team style. In this case, the InStat solution revolutionized the scouting market - it gathers information with videos about more than 400,000 players!
Some managers are known from their passionate approach to statistics - like Josep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel, or Marcelo Bielsa. A few months ago Bielsa was even a hero of a spying scandal with data in the foreground. Fortunately, sports technology isn’t here only to let trainers spy on their opponents, but also to maintain contact between coaches and players - like SportsHi app we created in collaboration with New York-based startup. It is a React Native app dedicated to students from high school or university teams which helps them organize their activities.
Technology in the fitness industry
Development of new technologies also creates lots of opportunities for fitness industry growth. According to the Wellness Creative report, the global fitness market is worth nearly $90 billion, with over 200 thousand clubs worldwide. Fully automated clubs are not even the near future but reality. First of all, AI allows fitness centers to lower labor costs and even predict customers’ behavior by analyzing their activities. That’s the key factor having in mind the most important KPI in the fitness industry - maintaining high retention.
But as I mentioned in the introduction, technology changed the industry for both, so let’s focus on the customer approach to innovation in sports. Amateur activities are now more professionalized thanks to access to all of the data gathered by fitness apps connected with wearables. In 2016 Apple released Nike+ smartwatch, and now every tech company has a similar solution in his offer. For users, it works as a better motivation - they see real-time results and apps can suggest appropriate exercises according to their shape and activity. Market Research Future study says that by 2023, the fitness app market is predicted to grow by 23% compared to 2016. Ok, but did the sports innovation changed even the passive sports lovers approach? Of course it did.
Sports innovation and fans engagement
What are the main benefits for the fans and spectators? First of all, sports events became more accessible to them. Television channels are still a leader in terms of sports broadcasting, but the VOD platforms such as DAZN are working hard to become better players. Youtube also don’t want to stay behind and in April announced that they made a deal with MLB and are going to stream 13 games of the second part of the season.
Tech companies are also becoming partners of the main sports events. In 2018 Intel ensured, as they claim, the biggest VR experience for sports fans in the history, broadcasting live and on-demand 30 events of Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. It’s not the only event took part in, this tech giant is also bringing fans closer to the NBA, MBL, and NFL games.
But introducing innovation by tech leaders and streaming platforms also has the other side of the coin, they may be dangerous for clubs. How to keep fans engaged when they can experience the game as on the stadium but without leaving home? With the technology of course. Recently Manchester City has launched a new stadium tour that is planned to keep fans engaged thanks to AR or large, 360-degree cinema screen (first screen of this type in Premier League). But I think the most crucial part of this new tour can become a 3D holographic content - fans will be able to sit next to Pep Guardiola hologram in the conference room and even ask him questions!
What is the future of sports technology?
I remember that not so long time ago, people imagined the future of sports as the games between two robot teams, controlled by human coach on the bench. Now we see that, fortunately, it developed differently. Maybe the former predictions weren’t wrong at all - we can say that sports technology helps to make players resemble robots in a certain way, like, e.g. improving athletes' strength and injury prevention. Take a look at Cristiano Ronaldo, often called a 'Machine', he is a perfect example of a footballer that took advantage from big data, improved his training, what in combination with his mental strength helped him to become one of the best players in soccer history. And that’s the point - sports technology is here to serve sportsmen and spectators, but without that human factor, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it fully. Those matches like Liverpool thrilling win against Barcelona or Tottenham incredible winning goal in the last minute against Ajax are the little element of magic we all love.