The World Cup and the Data Revolution

June 27, 2014

Like most of the world’s sports fans, I’ve really gotten into this year’s World Cup. After years of dismissing soccer as just too boring, I’ve come around to understanding and appreciating why it’s so popular around the globe.

Despite the lack of scoring, soccer is indeed a sport with an immense amount of action. (Just look at this eye-popping analysis of how far players run during a match.)

What’s especially exciting is that these days, a good chunk of that action can be tracked and analyzed, offering teams and fans greater insights into how the game is played.

Information Week recently reported on the intersection of soccer and Big Data, pointing to new innovations like goal-line and ball-tracking technologies that help in officiating. But such technologies are also used to help teams play better.

“Effective data analysis can be used to improve a team's attacking prowess or nullify threats from opposing teams,” the magazine reported. “Teams can crunch the data to discover that more goals are scored from in-swinging corners and adapt their play accordingly.”

The granularity of the data collected is downright astonishing. Sensors on shin guards can track every player movement. Information on the flight of the ball can be recorded and dissected. There’s information on temperature, humidity and even moisture on the pitch. And players can wear devices that collect a wealth of biometric data that can be used to protect their health and improve their fitness.

This is happening in other sports as well, with new tracking technology being employed by Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association  just in the last two years. The National Football League is also expected to expand its use of GPS information and other data that can be used to determine everything from the location of the ball to the impact of a hit on a player’s helmet.

This is the kind of Big Data collection and analysis that everyone can get behind. There’s a clear appetite by fans and teams, and it can only lead to a greater understanding of the sports we love. 

Most of these technologies can easily be applied to other industries, from transportation companies to retailers and even farming.

And here’s the amazing thing: sports leagues have only scratched the surface of what they can do with data. We should not be surprised if our understanding of sports is completely revolutionized in the coming years.

And who knows? Maybe Big Data can help the U.S. win a World Cup.