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TMT Predictions 2021: The future of athlete performance data

Sports performance technology - a new game changer

Technologies for measuring athletes’ health and performance are transforming how they train, compete, and manage their careers. But this explosion of athlete data is raising new questions about how best to use it—and how to do so ethically.

How new performance data can make sport more rewarding and compelling for everyone

Nothing in life is quite as competitive as high-level sport. It is not surprising then that athletes and coaches are employing artificial intelligence in pursuit of so-called marginal gains. What is surprising is how inexpensive and easy  this can be.

Whereas detailed performance monitoring used to require athletes to wear specialist connected sensors, powerful computers can now easily extract an enormous amount of valuable data from video footage. Artificial intelligence systems running in the cloud are using video images to evaluate how much effort a player is putting in, differentiate a well-struck shot from a scuffed effort, assess the immediate likelihood of a goal and analyze many other aspects of competitive sport - see Deloitte’s TMT Predictions 2021 for more detail on this. 

Although there are still some technical and privacy issues to be overcome, the widespread dissemination of detailed data could have a profoundly positive impact on the world of sport. “We are entering a new era in which gut instinct and subjective assessments will gradually give way to objective and detailed data that will help everyone raise their game,” says Folkert Boer, sport and data analyst at football club RKC Waalwijk.

As these systems process vast amounts of data and become more adept at understanding and explaining what is going on, sport is set to become more rewarding and compelling for everyone from athletes and spectators to broadcasters and sponsors. Across all kinds of sport, there is an enormous appetite for detailed data. That is apparent in the popularity of mobile apps, such as Strava, which is used by professional and amateur cyclists alike to track their effort and performance in granular detail.

TMT Predictions 2021

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Usage of sports performance data

Team sports, such as football and field hockey, are also digging into detailed performance data. As the ecosystem evolves, more and more clubs are likely to pay to subscribe to services that enable them to assess the performance of players and the impact of tactics in each and every game. Individual athletes will also want to harness this kind of data both to hone their training and to attract sponsors and/or new employers.  “As the cost of these tools fall and they become easier to use, even amateurs are going to want these kinds of insights,” predicts Vincent van Renesse van Duivenbode, CEO of SciSports, a sports analytics software provider.

In the professional domain, these services can help clubs scout for new players and then protect their squad – the technology is reaching a point where it can spot when an athlete is at heightened risk of a serious injury. 

By reducing the need for in-person scouting and medical evaluations, this kind of technology can help clubs become more cost-efficient at a time when their revenues have been badly hit by the pandemic. “Digital technologies can provide a coach with another set of eyes and ears that can help them improve team performance and spot potential opportunities and problems early and act accordingly,” explains Max Caldas, the coach of the Dutch men’s hockey team.

At the same time, broadcasters or sports franchises could offer viewers a subscription to a real-time feed of the performance stats of their favorite athlete or team, covering everything from how fast they are moving to their usage of specific skills or techniques. In Germany, the professional football league is working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to provide fans with data about how likely a player was to score after an attempt at goal. After building a model using video footage of 40,000 goal attempts in the Bundesliga since 2017, the resulting machine learning system can provide an objective probability of a successful attempt, based on the angle and distance from the goal, together with the position of defenders and the goalkeeper. This kind of data will also be of interest to many actors in the broader entertainment industry, as well as to fans.

Over time, anybody watching a match will have a wealth of contextual and real-time data at their fingertips. The growing popularity of e-sports (competitive video gaming), in which detailed performance data is always available, is raising expectations among a new generation of spectators and players – young people regard detailed performance data as an integral part of the experience, rather than an ancillary feature. 

Another key application for this kind of technology is to help sponsors and advertisers evaluate how much prominence their brand is receiving during a live sports broadcast. For example, in a stage of the Tour de France, the system could tell a jersey sponsor exactly how much time its logo has been on view.  Similarly, it could report on how much airtime pitch-side billboards receive during coverage of team sports.

Keeping connected and respecting athletes' data privacy

Sport is a great showcase for technology. As AWS, Microsoft, Google and other big cloud players look to promote their machine learning and computer vision capabilities to the world, they are set to strike more and more partnerships with the sports franchises. 

But there are still some obstacles to be overcome. One is the need for a very reliable high-speed connection between the sports arena and the cloud, particularly for real-time applications. Streaming high definition footage from several video cameras on the side of a pitch consumes a lot of bandwidth, inferring the need for Ethernet connections or high-speed cellular (5G) or Wi-Fi links. 

Another constraint is the need to respect privacy, particularly as these systems expand beyond the world of professional sport and athletes aren’t necessarily under contract. In the Netherlands, one large media company was accused of breaching data privacy regulations when it used an automated system to edit footage of amateur football matches and then post the highlights online. If such highlights were to show an individual player making a major blunder, it is easy to anticipate why they might object.  

But, with sufficient foresight and preparation, such incidents can be avoided. The rewards will more than justify the effort involved – enriched with detailed performance data, playing and watching sport will become an even more absorbing activity than it is today. If you aren’t convinced, talk to a keen cyclist about Strava.

If you would like to discuss the opportunities and challenges arising from detailed performance analysis in sport, please contact us.

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