Teams give IT a sporting chance

Could the jocks and the nerds of the world unite? With the amount of technology that is popping up all over the world of professional sports, the answer seems to be a definite “yes”.

The level of technology adoption by sports teams lags that of other larger industries, in part because the members of this sector are, head-count-wise, small businesses. IT nevertheless has the potential to give teams the critical competitive advantage they need to beat the competition.

Sports may be a sexy market but it’s not a large one, so it’s not surprising that the major vendors haven’t been developing sports-specific applications. However, small players, consultants and the teams are driving innovation in areas like digital video editing, statistical analysis and analytics.

Captain Video goes digital

The late Roger Neilson pioneered the use of video to analyze game play in the National Hockey League in the early 1980s, earning him the nickname “Captain Video”. Neilson worked with videotape, but now many teams are taking advantage of the latest digital technology.

Among them are the National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) Toronto Raptors, and they’ve taken the added step of linking their digital video database with their scouting system to leverage the information even further.

Sasha Puric, director of IT for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, owner of Toronto’s Raptors, Maple Leafs and American Hockey League Marlies, says the Raptors have a team of scouts around the world tracking college players and other potential draft picks.

Using a Raptors-developed Web portal and VPN, the scouts file reports electronically. The reports can be combined with video on the player to provide a more complete picture for Raptors management on draft day. The same systems are also used to scout opposing teams and evaluate the Raptors’ own play.

“We’ve married the scouting database with the video breakdowns so we can have a comprehensive 360-degree view of a player,” says Puric.

The Raps’ video editing system lets coaches analyze each game down to the details, breaking the match down by possession, shots or a myriad of other stats at the click of a mouse.

Each game is captured digitally, and during play Puric’s team does basic breakdowns, such as offensive and defensive possessions, timeouts and other critical elements.

“At the end of the game we can generate a video file that allows our defensive assistant coach, for example, to look at all the defensive plays and mark certain spots that could be shown to the players at the next morning’s practice,” says Puric. “Video is a lot bigger now in the league than it has been in the past.”

The digital revolution is also beginning to make its way into the Canadian Football League. Most CFL franchises are more akin to small businesses than large corporations, but the Toronto Argonauts are out front, capturing all of their 2005 home games digitally.

Argos video coordinator Kevin Rita says each contest is shot digitally from two angles, one from the sideline and one from the end zone. The two angles are later merged so both can be viewed at once, and digital bookmarks are added to let users pull certain plays from the database, such as every first down.

“I do a lot of DVDs for the players to take home and watch,” says Rita. “Every week the coaches have prep games they want the players to see.”

The team’s setup includes a 2.4 TB server with three 500 GB portable drives as backups. Connected to the database are two video editing computers with high-end video cards, as well as two stand-alone boxes linked to the server for coaches to view plays.

“I’m pretty happy with the system. It’s one of the best, if not the best, in the league and it’s made life a lot smoother for [the coaches],” says Rita.

The coaching staff can’t remotely access the server, but when they hit the road they take along small projectors and portable DVD players to watch footage, and can also download games from the server to their laptops.

The system isn’t completely digital because each team only shoots their home games and shares the footage with opponents, and only the Argos are shooting digital at the moment.

It may take some time for the rest of the league to catch up, but Rita says going digital has already made a real difference for the Argos. “A lot more film is being watched, and the quality of the film is 70 per cent better than what we had before,” says Rita. “That means clarity of numbers, looking at guys’ footsteps, how they do things.”

Crunching the numbers

The CFL is also catching up in other areas of IT, in part through a technology partnership with Sun Microsystems of Canada that sees the Markham, Ont.-based vendor supply the league with a bundle of hardware, software and services.

Sun Canada marketing director Shirley Horvat says the showcase of the relationship is a new system for the real-time collection and availability of game statistics to coaches, players, the media and fans.

Each team used to gather statistics differently, from spreadsheet applications on a laptop to old-fashioned pen and paper. It was time-consuming, and in many cases, Horvat says, coaches wouldn’t get the statistics from the previous game until the eve of their next match.

“Providing the coaches with the data about the teams they’re about to play sooner gives them the opportunity to devise their strategy in a much better way,” says Horvat.

Today, at each CFL game league volunteers armed with laptops running the Sun-developed application collect statistics as they happen on the field. Data can be generated as XML to support third-party applications like fantasy football engines, and can also be leveraged by teams directly into their own statistical analysis apps.

“Data mining opportunities exist to your heart’s content after that,” says Horvat. “Different coaches will likely approach it in different ways.”

Red Sox hit IT home run

Many technology applications in sports are similar to non-sports implementations. For three months every year, Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox relocates its entire organization to Fort Myers, Fla. for spring training, and director of IT Steve Conley says the team turned to technology from Avaya to make the transition more seamless.

Previously, Conley says, the team had to maintain two separate phone systems, and staff had to learn a new phone number and voicemail system while in Fort Myers. Now, he says the Avaya IP-based system allows four-digit dialing between Fort Myers and Boston, and when staff move down to Florida, their extension follows them, along with their access to the database and other backend systems.

“You could be in Boston, Fort Myers or the Dominican Republic and it doesn’t matter; you get the same access to all your systems,” says Conley.

The goal of the Red Sox IT team is to give the baseball operations side access to whatever data, applications and systems it needs, from video and analytics to statistics — anything that might give the team a competitive advantage in deciding what player to draft, what free agents to sign, or whether to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade.

“We give these guys access to whatever data they need,” says Conley. “Any system that would give these guys access to a new way to look at data, they want to see it.”

The Red Sox finally beat the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 by winning its first World Series Championship since 1918, and IT was one of the unsung heroes of the victory.

The Sox is one of the growing numbers of teams in Major League Baseball using Sabremetrics, a system for the mathematical analysis of player performance.

Baseball is arguably the most statistic-heavy of the major pro sports, so it’s natural to feed those stats into a software application and crunch the numbers.

The concept was pioneered by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and popularized in his book Moneyball, and Conley says it is catching on as more teams see the advantages. “One of the old adages is, there’s no real secrets in baseball,” says Conley. “That’s why we’re always looking for a new way to do something. It’s a constant challenge.”

It’s still a game

Data analysis is still a new concept in the sports world, but Jay Coleman says it’s catching on. An operations management professor with the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Coleman and Allen Lynch, an economics professor at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., used statistical analysis models and software from SAS Institute to build a program that can predict the dance card for the NCAA college basketball championship tournament with 94 per cent accuracy, and the winners with 75 per cent accuracy.

Coleman’s project was a way to combine his profession of data analysis with his love of college basketball, but with the success of Moneyball he says the role for such tools in the sports world is becoming better defined.

He says some NBA teams are even using data analysis to help decide lineup combinations, to look at which players tend to play better with each other, and to see which players are truly better at winning games, as opposed to building up personal stats.

“I think what you’re going to find is more of that type of thing in professional sports,” says Coleman. “Scouting, assessing draft picks, assessing free agents…there’s potentially a world of work that could still be done there.”

In the end, however, it remains a game, and one that must be won on the field, the ice or the court. Raptors general manager Rob Babcock says their video editing and scouting system has allowed them to be a lot more creative and has saved a lot of time preparing for games.

However, in the end, like all technology, it’s just a tool, he says.

“To be honest with you, a great deal of the (technologies available) are overkill. You can gather statistics and do a ton of things, but there’s only so much you can do,” says Babcock. “It’s still basketball, you’ve still got to get out on the court and play it.”

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