As the Rio Olympics comes to a close, we look back at one of the most long-lived international events of all time, a competition filled with tradition, heritage and history. When thinking about industries prone to change however, sports is probably not one of them. We tend to like our sports to stay the same. Over the course of history even the smallest alterations and rule changes have caused people to get upset (like this glowing puck for example). Sure the games might have gotten faster and the equipment more advanced, but a forward is still a forward, an offside still an offside and the coach is still a thin-haired man in a suit.
Now, I could talk about how 360 cameras and new gadgets are going to change the of the game, and they will, but what is truly interesting to me is how the use of data and advanced statistics are revolutionizing sports. They are helping coaches make more informed decisions and build more competitive teams, subsequently changing the way the game is played. You see it in a lot of other fields as well; retailers are collecting data on their customers to learn more about their habits and preferences and Spotify is using data to tailor playlists just to your liking.
I am a hockey fan so I will use hockey as an example. In the past, a lot of faith has been put to abstract things like hockey-sense or gut feeling, but with the rise of advanced statistics, analysts are starting to define what these things actually mean. For instance, they use a statistic figure called PDO which is basically “the measure of luck”. By using this they can determine if a team is performing above or below their actual potential. The same kind of statistics are used on players to see if they are actually helping their team on a level beyond just scoring and defending goals. Now scoring goals is arguably the point of any game, but we all know there is usually more to the story. This is a deeper kind of analysis that combines hours, weeks and years of data through algorithms and tools that were not available to us before.
The point is that these advanced statistics are not something that just show up on the scoreboard. They are numbers that need some serious crunching before they can be presented. This has opened up the sporting industry for programmers and analysts as more organizations are hiring these people to work in their back-offices.
One of my favorite NHL teams shocked the hockey world this summer by hiring 26-year-old analyst John Chayka as their General Manager, which basically means he is the team’s boss. These are positions usually filled by ex-players or coaches with decades of experience that by the old definition “know the game”. At a mere 26 years of age this guy has already proven that the power of data can help build a more dynamic and effective team that hockey- sense or gut feeling ever could.
In conclusion, digitalization and the power of data is being realized everywhere, even somewhere as conservative as ice hockey. And while I do not think we should discard things like gut feeling and hockey-sense, one is better off from recognizing these new tools that are made available to us. Because if you don’t, you might find yourself sidelined very soon.