Is Sports Data Going to Be “the New Oil?”

Data points for running man

Writing recently about the upcoming General Data Protection Regulations, which come into force next month and which will affect any company dealing with EU citizens, we quoted the now well-known dictum that “data is the new oil.”

The phrase was originally coined to describe our personal data, the value it has to the companies we share it with, and the way we have to share it in order to live our lives.

But now it looks as if data may be “the new oil” in sport, as well.

The comments in this article apply to a number of sports: basketball, hockey, baseball, cricket, and golf. But I’m going to stick with soccer for my examples, not least because the English Premier League has jumped feet first into the data debate.

“He had a good game…”

Our analysis of a game used to be simple. It was subjective and anecdotal and it took place in the pub after the game. “I thought he had a good game. Got stuck in, a few good passes, and he was unlucky not to score near the end.”

But, as technology has developed, so has data. Most people reading this article will have seen “Moneyball,” the story of how Billy Beane abandoned the perceived wisdom of the locker room and used data to assemble the roster of the Oakland Athletics. The result? A 103-59 season in 2002, which saw them win the American League West.

Data was rapidly and increasingly adopted by other sports, and so much for our subjective post-game analysis. A player’s performance is measured all too precisely. Distance covered; tackles made; interceptions, shots, shots on target, shots from outside the area…

…And if someone scores the winning goal and whips off his shirt to reveal what at first glance looks like a sports bra, it’s not. It’s a performance tracker, measuring the player’s heart rate throughout the game, distance covered, average speed, and a host of other performance measures.

Suddenly soccer, and every other major sport, is awash with data. And that data is valuable to managers and coaches, to the media, to the fans, and to the sports betting companies, especially those operating Daily Fantasy Sports contests.

So it is small wonder that the sports seek to control their own data: It is very clearly a marketable asset.

EPL stands with NBA and MLB

With the anticipated roll-out of sports betting in so many states in the USA, this data is going to become even more valuable, so much so that the NBA and MLB want to introduce an “integrity fee” payable by companies (and that would be sports betting companies) who benefit from the data.

The NBA and MLB, together with the US PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association), are advocating the payment of an integrity fee ranging from 0.25% to 1% of the amount bet on league events.

They have been supported in this by the English Premier League. Adrian Ford, general manager of Football Data Co., which holds the rights to the EPL’s data, said, “Broadly, we don’t think what the leagues are asking for is fundamentally wrong, if you’re trying to come up with a framework that works for both parties.”

At the moment, sports betting companies operating in the UK do not pay any fee for the data they use, whether it is something as simple as fixtures and scores or the more complex data that operators of DFS contents will need. But, quite clearly, implementation of such a scheme in the US could prompt new demands in the UK.

Squaring the circle

It is going to be tough to square this circle. You can see the leagues’ point of view: Companies are benefiting from their data and it is only right that they be compensated for that data. But to suggest that it is the only way the “integrity” of a sport can be maintained is fanciful because, as technology continues to improve, there are going to be ever more ways of objectively measuring performance.

And can the sports betting companies afford to pay an integrity fee? With some companies operating on very tight margins, a fee of say, 1% payable on turnover is going to cut sharply into their profits.

Then there is the perennial question for all sports leagues. Not all teams are equal: Some data will be more valuable than other data. Betting turnover on Manchester United vs. Liverpool will dwarf turnover on Watford vs. Crystal Palace. As far as the EPL is concerned, an integrity fee may well bring forward the day when Manchester United decide they’d rather play in a league with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich than West Brom and Bournemouth.

It may be a case of “be careful what you wish for…”


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