The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Simon Banoub at Opta, the world’s leading sports data company, about the growing opportunities to use data in professional sports.
Daniel Castro: For those who may not be familiar with Opta and the world of sports data, can you briefly describe what your company does?
Simon Banoub: Opta collects, distributes and analyses data from sport. This allows us to supply a variety of customers in a number of market sectors including broadcasters, print and digital media, betting companies and professional sports clubs. Our data allows for in-depth live analysis of performance and this helps to inform, educate and illuminate sport at a number of levels. To give a bit of context, in football we collect and distribute every single on the ball action from all of the major leagues and competitions around the world. This is over 1,600 individual pieces of data from every match, including who passed the who, where and when, all of the tackles, headers, shots, fouls, corners, saves and goals. Once this data is in our database we have a team of football experts who turn it into statistics that can be used by broadcasters and media to inform and educate their viewers.
Castro: Opta launched in 1996, but the capacity to collect and distribute data has change enormously since then. How has this affected your business?
Banoub: There are a few factors that have contributed to the growth of Opta in that time. Firstly the fans have changed. Fans now expect layers of information—the game isn’t enough. They expect to know about the personal lives of the players, details of their contracts—they’ll follow them on Twitter and Instagram to get more information about everything to do with them. Opta performance data is another level of information. This allows fans to continue to engage with football outside of the 90 minutes.
The media have changed dramatically as well—we’ve gone from one or two live matches a week to matches on every day, from leagues and competitions around the world. The most televised team in England is now Barcelona. So football is a truly global game and this gives the media plenty of content to work with. So you’ve not got 24 hour sports media added to social media, and this all creates demand for the kind of currency that sports data has become.
Taking these two things into account, the sports data industry has evolved accordingly. At the start of Opta’s journey there was no need to send details of passes live—all the media was interested in back then was the score of the match and who scored the goals. It was enough in those days for the detailed match analysis to be done in the week following the game.
Now it is standard for the most detailed information to be published live, so Opta and others in our industry have had to adjust our collection and delivery technology accordingly.
Castro: Any given match produces a huge volume of data. How does Opta decide which data points to collect and ensure they are collected consistently?
Banoub: Firstly we have to be able to collect the information live, and adding extra data points has to be done without compromising the stuff that we already collect. That’s crucial.
But there is also a client and market driven element to it. For example, a couple of years back some of our professional football club clients requested information around whether teams defended corners using a man on one or both posts. We could add this in pretty easily to our system and now it is a standard part of our collection across all of the leagues we collect at full detail.
Every year we have a review process and take client feedback on what we can add in to our system.
Castro: Many people are now familiar with Moneyball and how detailed sports data has improved scouting and recruiting. What are other popular uses of Opta data?
Banoub: Aside from the elements made popular by Moneyball, and the now ubiquitous detailed data you’ll see across numerous media channels, there are a few growing areas of development for sports data. The main one of these is the use of pretty detailed analytical processes to predict future performance. This has uses in the professional game for player recruitment and development but also for bookmakers to create models and set odds confidently and accurately.
Castro: As this industry continues to evolve, what other data-driven innovations might sports fans look forward to in the coming years?
Banoub: The main one I’d say is better data visualization. The amount of data available isn’t the issue now—it is how that is distilled and presented that is going to be the key battleground.
Across all areas in which we work finding actionable insight is the key to making progress.
We’re seeing some very talented people enter this space and at Opta we meet with pioneers in this field on a regular basis.