Sports data: Why I might be the data bard of the Eisteddfod

A giant tennis ball surrounded by London, England landmarks such as the Big Ben and the London Eye | Data in sports

In this feature, Chris Gabriel, chief strategy officer at Sapphire Systems, discusses data in sports – and not being the Welsh James Hunt or John McEnroe.

It’s that time of the year again – the season of the quintessentially British benefit of the corporate hospitality day out at a great sporting event.

There is no better digital feeling in life – apart from the annual ERP Today Awards jamboree at Ascot Racecourse, of course – than the email popping into your inbox with the offer, made with incredibly good grace and an eye to anti-bribery legislation. I’m talking about the one which asks if by any chance you could re-allocate your diary and consider attending [tick as appropriate] a day out at the cricket / tennis / golf / racing / motor racing / polo at the pleasure of XYZ.

So it was with immense support to two vendor partners that I dutifully and, indeed, rapidly accepted invitations to Wimbledon (second Monday; I am not that important) and the Goodwood Festival of Speed. As always at these events when one ponders life over a perfectly poured Pimm’s, I considered how well sports, in contrast to many businesses, have captured the magic of data to tell stories, engage an audience, make game changing decisions and create genuine color for their audience from that monochrome of zeros and ones.

Wimbledon, for example, has long been a data-rich environment. We see it on our TV screens at home, but now everything is monitored, analyzed; decisions made from basic match stats on aces, double faults or first serves won; to more recently, player movement that provide insights into the players’ performances or potential strategy. Data from Hawkeye is now an integral part of line decisions that create moments of tension for players, fans and officials alike. We also have weather analysis, atmospheric conditions and ball movement predictions that maybe we as mere spectators do not see, but that coaches and players will pre-analyze in depth before taking to the center court.

We were lucky enough to hear from Pat Cash, an Australian legend of the game who a) turned out to be a really nice bloke and b) discussed how the game was now radically different to his day and everything had changed (the grass, the rackets, the balls) to continue to move the game forward and make it more competitive. Of course, with all of that came more data driven everything – from coaching to match strategy. Oddly enough, world class tennis players don’t just pitch up and play the game in front of them; instead they use data to plan and strategize their way to victory.

Formula 1s and 0s

At Goodwood our hosts provided insights into Formula One and the literally mind-boggling quantities of data that is now used in this “sport” to enhance the performance of car and driver, and to enhance, embellish and augment the experience of the spectator in the crowd or on the sofa.

A very smart chap at Goodwood gave us incredible insights into why data is so important during design, simulation, testing, qualifying, racing – an F1 car produces about 1.5 billion data points in a race alone.

He also informed us data was becoming key in the other side of the F1 business, being used to tell stories to all the bums on sofas, and stories within a story, that can be layered into the race and turn the experience of F1 from less of a parade to more of battles within battles within battles in every possible position on the track.

Through data, a race now becomes a Russian doll-like narrative that fans can follow and engage in, and through data the outcome of that battle can be seen – from the leaders to every single individual battle on the track. The most ardent F1 commentator could not hope to describe the complexity of a race second by second, but data can bring it to life and create a whole new set of experiences.

The same is becoming true for virtually all sports which are competing with each other for your interest, your attention and your money.

Be more sporting

Sports franchises, businesses in their own right, have leapfrogged more traditional enterprises so far in the use of data, and how they have become so conversant in telling stories through data using relationships, complexities, influence, long-term trends, real-time impact and creative or tactical decision-making. So what can businesses, CFOs, COOs, CIOs etc learn from sports to become better data storytellers in their own organizations to drive value to all of their stakeholders?

As your Welsh data bard of the summer Eisteddfod, I think the answer is simple.

Yes, sports use data to monitor basic KPIs (the number of first serves, lap-times, shots on a golf course), which are the basics that many organizations are still working at with their traditional BI tools.

Sports create genuine color for their audience from that most monochrome of zeros and ones.

But – sports then realized they could use data to improve performance. Not just using it to measure things, but seeing it as a key asset used to analyze, model, predict and improve performance across every single aspect of the game. How many businesses do that today? Be honest!

And of course they now use data to enthrall the audience. Is that twelfth place car pitting going to change the course of the entire race, of the entire season even?

Yes, F1, tennis, golf and the like have huge amounts of money, access to the best talent and big sponsors, so you might think it is easy for them. It is indeed easy for them, but these franchises wouldn’t put the effort into becoming so data-powered unless it made a real difference to the success of their endeavors. They are just lucky to be glamorous enough to be the flag carriers for the cutting edge of what data can do in business.

Chat “GTP”?

The advent of large language models and AI is making storytelling through data, numerically or textually, far easier and more powerful than ever before. ChatGPT with a PDF reading add-on turns an annual report PDF into data you can ask questions of, converse with and get answers from that six months ago would have taken hours or days to read and make notes from.

The same cloud analytics and data science being deployed in amazing ways by sports franchises, teams and players is the same stuff we as businesses can access to make our business narratives rich; whether that is your finance story, your revenue prediction story, your asset story or your service operations story.

You may not be an F1 Team but think in the same way as one. Instead of using data to improve your product, make it part of your product, and see the value of data beyond measuring your past or even your present, by making it your future.

This will not be the first or last article where you will read about the use of data. But I hope it is a way you can use your summer holiday to lie back with a cool beer or G&T and think about what questions you would like to ask the data in your business. Imagine what stories you would like to tell with it to inspire others to change the tires on your business just at the right time so it can undercut the competition and get on the data podium.