Anyone who’s remotely attuned to college or professional sports broadcasting is acutely aware that data and statistics play a huge role in the industry. From historical data and fundamental scorekeeping to algorithmic performance forecasting and extremely specific player statistics, big data is the industry’s most valuable player.
Data lets teams and organizations track performance, make predictions and make smarter decisions on the field. Want to figure out what play is best to run on fourth down in a football game? Check the analytics. Wondering whether or not your pitcher should throw another inning? Check the analytics. Players still win games, but data allows coaches to put them in the best position to succeed.
Analytics have made its way into the way fans consume sports, too. Off the field, analysts, commentators and fans use data constantly — whether it’s to provide play-by-play explanations, discuss predictions or power fantasy league decisions.
For a long time, data analysts were kept at an arm’s length by coaches and front offices. But today, it’s not uncommon for data analysts to populate sports staffs. As athletes and managers seek any statistical edge they can find, the role of sports analytics only seems to be growing.
What Is Sports Analytics?
Sports analytics is a more recent field that uses data to measure areas like athletic performance and business health to optimize the processes and success of a sports organization as a whole. On-field data metrics help teams decide how to improve in-game strategies, nutrition plans and other methods for raising their athletes’ level of performance. Off the field, organizations can leverage data to monitor ticket sales, craft marketing campaigns and reduce operational costs.
What Is Sports Analytics?
Besides professional teams, betting companies and fans have also joined the action. Sports betting analytics groups rely on data to determine the odds of certain game results happening. Fans then consider these odds when placing bets, selecting players for a fantasy team and making other decisions that depend on statistical data.
The Rise of Sports Analytics
Sports and data have always gone hand in hand. Newspapers publish box scores, baseball cards show a player’s career stats and radio announcers have long used data to provide context to their commentary, like how many yards a running back has gained in each game they’ve played, on average.
General managers and coaches have long evaluated players based on a mix of stats — things like points, batting average or yards thrown (depending on your sport) — and subjective gut or feel like, “This player is due for a hit.” But beyond those surface statistics, coaches and athletes alike generally stiff-armed any deeper data analysis.
Early statisticians like Bill James, however, started challenging those subjective assumptions with data in the 1980s. James came up with a mathematical system to evaluate baseball players called Sabermetrics, which he released to the public in a book titled The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. In it, he created equations like “runs created” that factored in a baseball team’s offensive stats to predict how many runs they’d likely score. It was his first stab at a way to objectively analyze players and help general managers optimize their teams, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
Sports analytics didn’t truly take off until 2002, when Oakland Athletics general Billy Beane relied on it to put together a team of lesser-known players that nearly won a World Series. His strategy of optimizing a team through statistical analysis became known as “Moneyball” and quickly became the way other teams operated.
Each major sport has since had its own analytics evolution with teams hiring data scientists and seeking ways to objectively analyze players and gain a statistical edge. For example, basketball teams now optimize their offenses for three-pointers and layups because shot chart analysis showed them to be the most efficient shots in the game.
The global sports analytics industry is expected to reach $3.4 billion by 2028, according to a 2021 report from Research and Markets.
Tracking software and machine learning have taken sports analytics to the next level. Companies like Genius Sports are able to generate statistical breakdowns from video footage to help coaches optimize their play calling during games or generate post-game takeaways. Others use cameras and machine learning software to track things like ball speeds, spin rates and player movement, which regularly factor into both broadcasts and team decisions. Baseball players, for example, are regularly seen using tablets to review data like pitch distributions to make adjustments mid-game.
Analytics have also shaped the way fans consume sports. Fans can hop over to websites like FiveThirtyEight for data-based sports coverage and their favorite team’s odds to win a championship. Broadcast announcers regularly break down a player’s breakaway speed in football or launch angle after a home run in baseball. It’s even a staple in projecting the best players in fantasy sports.
Sports analytics’ move from the bench to a starting role was a long time coming, and it doesn’t look to be relinquishing its spot anytime soon.
Sports Analytics Jobs and Careers
The growth of the sports analytics industry has led to a wealth of job opportunities, so aspiring professionals can now build careers at the crossroads of sports and data analysis. A passion for sports is a common box to tick for those looking to enter the field. However, sports analytics positions like football research analyst and data analysis manager also require an in-depth knowledge of data science.
Students and professionals eager to break into sports analytics should master some of the programming languages most popular among data scientists. R and Python are two languages that enable individuals to quickly compile data and locate patterns. It also helps to study programs like Excel, which makes it easier to organize large data sets.
While a sports analytics degree is ideal for someone seeking to make a living in sports analytics, data science-related degrees also provide a strong foundation for newcomers. As long as professionals blend their love of sports with a thorough understanding of data science, they’ll have plenty of options when trying to get started in this field.
Below are just a few of the companies making the sports analytics boom possible.
Sports Analytics Companies
Location: Austin, Texas
Breaking down game film for analysis can be tedious and time-consuming. Trace attempts to solve that problem for soccer coaches by providing them with recording gear and an AI system that analyzes game film for them. Players wear a tracking device called a Tracer while its specially designed camera records the game. The AI bot then takes that footage and stitches together all of the most important moments in a game — from shots on goal to defensive lapses and more.
Trace’s technology aims to help soccer coaches and players glean more insights from game film. Beyond stitching together clips, the software also provides performance metrics and a field heat map that coaches can use to optimize strategy for future games.
Location: London, England
Genius Sports offers tools like its platform LiveStats that make it easier for coaches and broadcasters to track statistics during a game and analyze them for insights. Coaches can access the data during the game to inform coaching decisions, or focus on a specific play or data set to inform training sessions.
Genius Sports partners with several major sports organizations, including the NCAA, MLB, NFL and the Premier League. In addition to providing statistical analysis for coaches, it also powers online scoreboards and live play-by-play entries that aim to increase fan engagement.
Location: Lincoln, Nebraska
Hudl provides a mix of smart cameras, desktop apps and video tracking software to help coaches across more than 30 sports draw insights from game film. Within its suite of tools, coaches can create their own workflows to generate custom analysis, as well as integrate scouting reports directly to game film of their opponents. Hudl also provides analytics support to help coaches recruit and scout athletes.
Hudl’s software is used by both high school coaches as well as those at the collegiate and professional level. According to its website, its software helps more than 180,000 teams break down game film and generate statistical analysis that they can use to improve their teams.
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
While some sports analytics companies focus on in-game performance, WHOOP provides a wearable device that tracks an athlete’s physical metrics like resting heart rate, sleep cycle and respiratory rate. The device aims to help athletes better understand when to push their training and when to rest, as well as to make sure they’re taking the necessary steps to get the most out of their body.
WHOOP allows athletes to approach their training with the same statistical rigor as their games. Professional athletes like Olympic sprinter Gabby Thomas, Olympic golfer Nelly Korda and PGA golfer Nick Watney are among the company’s users, according to its website.
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Covering more than 45 sports and 600 leagues globally, Stats Perform delivers a gargantuan amount of sports data and provides statistics for leading sports entertainment providers like ESPN, Yahoo and Sports Illustrated. The company’s data feeds provide everything from pre-game and predictive data to in-game data and individual player projections.
Stats Perform provides new opportunities and discoveries for analysts, fans and fantasy sports enthusiasts in every sport it covers, from college football to professional rugby.
Location: New York, New York
NumberFire is a sports analytics company that helps fans analyze and predict individual athlete and team performance. Acquired by Fanduel in 2015, the company mines insights from different kinds of unstructured data for teams and leagues, including the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA. NumberFire uses public data sources and predictive modeling algorithms to provide projections that are used by fantasy sports fans.
NumberFire claims that, by using its projections, fantasy sports players have a 30 percent higher chance of winning their leagues.
Location: Melville, New York
ChyronHego provides real-time data visualization and broadcast graphics for live television, news and sports coverage. With a collection of products and services, the company offers Player Tracking solutions that use optical, GPS and radio frequency methods to collect data. The company’s optical tracking system, TRACAB, uses cameras to track players and ball positions in over 300 stadiums and captures live data from 4,500 games annually.
Deployed in all MLB parks and stadiums, TRACAB can track at a data rate of 25 points per second, providing the information for play-by-plays, graphic visualizations and other analysis for coaches, analysts and commentators. The company’s technology helps power the MLB’s popular and award-winning Statcast.
Location: New York, New York
Elias Sports Bureau provides sports statistics and historical data in the United States and Canada. The company’s clients include ESPN, Turner Sports, Comcast SportsNet and the NFL Network.
Founded more than a century ago, the company got its start selling scorecards and baseball data to fans. Elias serves as the official statistician for the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, WNBA and MLS.
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
TruMedia provides sports data warehousing and analytics solutions to professional teams and sports media. Working primarily in baseball, football, soccer and cricket, TruMedia enhances engagement with data, providing solutions like interactive graphics that give data a visual edge.
TruMedia’s data helps sports analysts and commentators enhance explanations and breakdowns through graphics like heat maps that display visual pitch placement data.