Moneyball or Mourinho: Is sport seeing a big data revolution?

Sunday 18 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Cinema 2, Barbican Battle over Technology

After a disastrous Cricket World Cup campaign, then England coach Peter Moores reportedly said he would ‘look at the data’ to explain what had happened. He was lampooned by fans who felt there was no need to defer to ‘performance indicators’ to understand his team’s shortcomings.

Nonetheless, many in sport see data as the Next Big Thing. In 2003, Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, became a bestseller by describing the statistical methods used by the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics baseball team to fashion a group of relatively low-cost players into a hugely successful team. An emphasis on data has also been central to the success of both the Great Britain cycling team and Team Sky, both led by Sir Dave Brailsford, while crunching enormous quantities of data is standard practice for every team in Formula 1. Controversy remains, however. Matthew Benham, owner of Brentford FC in the English Championship, attracted considerable criticism for applying Moneyball-style methods, even sacking his highly-rated manager Mark Warburton for refusing to play along. So is the use of data any more than an excuse for deskilling sport, employing compliant coaches as mere implementers of statistical models?

Sporting coaches have always used numbers to try to measure how well players and teams are doing, but the ability to capture and analyse the minutiae of a game has certainly improved. Cameras, sensors and wearables record every aspect of player performance. Managers, coaches and athletes are using data to dictate calorie intake and training levels in the chase for better performance on the field. Even if the effect of data on sport itself doesn’t live up to the hype, perhaps it can enhance the experience for fans. Giving fans more information in real time in fast-moving sports could add to the excitement and depth of understanding about what is happening – for example, by providing information on events ‘off the ball’ that are hard for a TV viewer to get a sense of. On the other hand, even this effect must be limited. A poor match is still a poor match, no matter how much number-crunching accompanies it.

Does an obsession with data come at the expense of understanding much more basic issues, like player motivation and confidence or tactics? The rise of Big Data in sport seems to replace the experience and personality of successful coaches, like Jose Mourinho, with the judgement of the data analyst. Does such an approach deprive sport of spontaneity and creativity, replacing flair players with obedient and functional performers who ‘do a job for the team’?

Listen to the debate

Sue Daley
head of big data, cloud and mobile, techUK

Jonathan Liew
sportswriter, Telegraph

Adam Rawcliffe
partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas

Dr Joel Nathan Rosen
associate professor of sociology, Moravian College; co-author, Black Baseball, Black Business: race enterprise and the fate of the segregated dollar; author, The Erosion of the American Sporting Ethos: Shifting Attitudes Toward Competition

Philip Walters
chair, Rising Stars (educational publisher), and the GL Education Group; Spurs season ticket holder; member of Middlesex County Cricket Club

Hilary Salt
actuary; founder, First Actuarial
Recommended readings
How Rugby World Cup teams are using Big Data Analytics to gain the advantage

It may be that the answer to who will win the World Cup may in fact lie in which team is able to unlock the insights and knowledge hidden within the vast amounts of data collected during the tournament.

techUK, 7 October 2015

Big data: the winning formula in sports Bernard Marr, Forbes, 25 March 2015

Analyse this: Why it never hurts to look at the data

Numbers do have their place in cricket, but you should not let them overrule your instincts and undermine your responsibility

Andrew Strauss, The Sunday Times, 15 March 2015

Coaching by numbers: is data analytics the future of management?

Maths over Mourinho? Analytics over Ancelotti? Data analysis is now commonplace in both the sporting and business worlds, but human decision making still dominates in management writes Tomas Chammorro-Premuzic

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Guardian, 22 January 2015

Big Data: The Next Revolution of Sport

Big Data -- the aggregation and analysis of data to optimize performance -- is transforming modern society. Sport, which has always served as a reflection of society, is no exception. While calculations have been employed since the dawn of athletics, the latest innovations in data are poised to trigger a revolution.

Richard Attias, Huffington Post, 9 October 2014

Football can’t be reduced to number-crunching Duleep Allirajah, spiked, December 2011

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