It’s a great time to be a sports fan – and an even better time to be a sports and data fan as these two worlds continue to meld together. For the last couple of years nearly every conversation about sports, analytics or both had to have at least one mention of “Moneyball” – the story of how Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics used data to create a strong team through a recruitment strategy that was often at odds with the established ways baseball scouts evaluated players.

Where granular telemetry information that needed processing in near-real time was once reserved for high-end auto racing, we’re not far from a world where it becomes pervasive in other sports. Think about being able to see a soccer player’s heart rate as he walks up the pitch to take a decisive penalty shot. Or knowing how fast the hockey puck is moving as it slides behind the goalkeeper. Or something as seemingly trivial as being able to quickly find the closest restroom in a crowded sports venue.

The Oakland As are no longer alone in embracing a data-driven decision making model: many sports leagues, individual teams, and sporting venues are exploring ways to capture and track player performance data, understand what fans need, and improve overall fan experience. If you’re interested in doing the same, consider these tips.

1) Start with the data
Your first step should always be to understand what data you have readily available and what data sets you’ll need in the future to meet your business needs. For example: if you’re a sports team, perhaps you already have a strong database of season ticket holders and you’re now looking at ways to enhance the in-stadium experience for your most loyal fans via special discounts, special offers, and rewards for loyalty. If you’re on the recruiting side, what are the relevant player metrics that will help you evaluate players from different geographies and feeder leagues; if a player you’re interested in recruiting has a very strong social media following, does that give her an edge against a similarly capable competitor? The possibilities are endless if you build a flexible data infrastructure.

2) Technology is your asset
Sports are inherently real-time whether in-person at a sporting venue, at home on TV, or ever increasingly via what we in media fondly call 2nd screens: smartphones or tablets while on the go. Your fans are never too far away from their smartphones: whether they’re sharing photos from a game, commenting on a match on social media, or perhaps watching a replay of an interesting moment while they’re in the stadium, they’re giving you cues on what’s important and relevant to them. And with wearable tech permeating the professional sports world your ability to collect, analyze, and act on relevant data points can provide a truly differentiated, immersive, and rewarding fan experience.

3) Focus on value and avoid the creepiness factor
While the opportunity to be proactive with data is clear, so is the opportunity for blunders. Just because you can send a marketing text message to your fans doesn’t mean you should. Thinking through each fan interaction with the lens of improving a customer’s experience is the right way to go. When you’re making software and technology decisions make sure you’re picking a system that ensures flexibility and surfaces insights around fan experience and the value of each interaction regardless if it’s happening through a marketing email, on your website, or in your sports venue.

One thing is sure: we’re in the early innings of data and analytics in sports. If you’ve implemented a great data program or have simply encountered a great technology-driven sports experience as a fan I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


/* Originally posted on SAS Voices. While F1 is more my speed than baseball, NFL, and similar team sports I’m fascinated by how pervasive and transformative the use of data (especially big data sets including biometric information that can be processed quickly) is across a wide swatch of activities. */