Sport is being transformed by cloud power

Fast, scalable data analytics capabilities are within touching distance of every team

Sponsored Feature Cloud computing is having a transformational effect on the world of sport. It is changing how athletes train and keep fit, the way games are played, and even how events are consumed by spectators.

Perhaps cloud's biggest impact has been around the enormous analytical and data handling power that can now be brought to bear on the performance of both individual athletes and teams. Concentrated compute resources can monitor and analyse every detail of performance in real time, storing and crunching a huge quantity and variety of data to hone player talent and improve competitive outcomes.

According to global research and consulting firm MarketsandMarkets, the computerised sports analytics sector is set for dramatic growth. Worth $1.9bn in 2019, it is forecast to reach a value of $5.2bn by 2024, with performance analysis expected to be the fastest growing part of the market.

Cloudy on and off the field

Across the sporting spectrum, sports organizations are using cloud technology to form the basis of key decisions both on and off the field. Information can now be gathered from a range of sources, from biomedical sensors to video footage from drones. This data can range over pretty much every aspect of an athlete's life, whether they are eating, sleeping or training. Fed to cloud servers, this data is the basis of improving not just an athlete's performance but their overall health, including forecasting the likelihood of future injury, all as part of helping to achieve optimum results.

When data obtained from devices, during matches or in a training situation, is uploaded to the cloud it means that everybody from the head coach to the medical team can view and analyze it, helping to track a player's development and identify the areas where their activity needs improvement.

Reliance on analysis to improve sporting performance is not new. Technology was developed as long ago as the 1950s to turn thousands of in-game data points into statistics as part of assessing athlete performance. Baseball executive Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics took the science to a new level in the early 2000s with his 'moneyball' approach to identifying underrated players with a view to inexpensively building a more successful team.

A movie starring Brad Pitt brought attention to Beane's innovative work.

But it is the cloud era that has taken sports analytics to a whole new level. Ultimately it spelled the end of in-house batch-driven data processing cycles which meant that once data scientists have generated their insights, the moment of maximum usability for those insights has often passed.

Chris Woodin is Vice President of the Cloud Business Unit with Toronto-based Softchoice, a provider of cloud migration solutions to many sports organisations. "There's a number of ways in which cloud is enabling the sports industry," he says. "It helps with the optimisation of teams and athletes and also with the experience of fans. Cloud data services mean sports organisations can consume and use huge amounts of data in order to more easily identify key trends. They can more clearly visualise the meaning of that data."

Cloud-based analytics has, he believes, contributed a lot more than just number crunching power to the elite: "We're now seeing smaller sports organisations benefit that maybe traditionally haven't had the resources necessary for data analysis," he notes. "Historically they have lacked the human capital, or perhaps the technical capability. Cloud compute power is democratising the ability to do really advanced data analysis, opening that to organisations of every size and background."

Scalability needs enormous compute power

Placing sports analytics in the cloud, rather than relying on in-house IT, lets organisations build the applications they want much more quickly, as they utilise pre-built platforms: "You can access all the microservices that are available in the public cloud fabric," adds Woodin. "Transaction processing, facial recognition, location services, you don't have to design those from scratch. It all means sports bodies don't need a bunch of developers on staff. They can use APIs and simply plug in pre-built cloud services. They can pick and choose and then integrate the additional services they want into their application."

He notes that in the sports industry, IT departments tend to be very lean and lightly funded: "These aren't IT organisations," he says. "These small teams often spend the working day maintaining traditional infrastructure. It takes time, keeping a data centre running 24 hours a day. There's no time to innovate when you're trying to keep the lights on. Plus there's huge volatility in demand for their services, depending on whether it's match day or not."

Woodin argues that by moving everything into the cloud, IT staff can shift their skills to developing exciting new services to enable the team to run more efficiently or augment the fan experience: "These organisations have no problem coming up with great ideas," he believes. "The hard part is bringing that to life. Cloud does that with its limitless potential. That said, by and large the vast majority or sports organisations have not made that move yet. They are still running on traditional infrastructure."

Ronald Brouwer is Senior Manager Data & Responsible Insight with Deloitte, based out of the firm's Amsterdam office. He is also a former top-level athlete, having been a key member of the Dutch national field hockey team which won the silver medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Brouwer has subsequently served the team as data analyst and assistant coach. "Cloud-based performance analytics is still in its infancy in Europe, compared to what we're seeing in the United States," he notes. "But it has enormous potential. Sometimes there's a lack of knowledge at management level, but people coming out of university into sports management right now will bring knowledge and enthusiasm with them."

The analytical power of the cloud is so much more scalable than anything that in-house IT can deliver, he notes: "To achieve the analytics you need during a game needs a high level of compute power," he explains. "Today's GPU technology and agile architectures can handle all that data, and scale it up rapidly. Then, after the game, when you don't need that data any more, you can scale down and reduce your costs. Cloud excels here."

Brouwer reveals that Deloitte is piloting a number of use cases featuring edge compute technology, based around 5G. This offers the potential, for example, to stream video footage on demand during a game: "Stadiums in most cases don't have the sort of WiFi that can do this," he says. "The future for this technology looks good. Just think of golf where fans of the PGA tour would have to follow the player round the course. Now you can just click and watch every shot that that player makes."

Baseball, soccer, sailing and cycling lead the way

Indeed instances now abound of sports that are making use of platforms like Google Cloud and its BigQuery data warehouse solution.

The Football Association of England, for example, is deploying cloud technology to prepare both its men's and women's teams for upcoming tournaments. The Google Cloud Platform (GCP) helps The FA to maximise its use of data by processing large volumes of information on a daily basis, which is used by coaches and performance staff to make key decisions for England Teams.

The SailGP international sailing competition also uses cloud power to analyze billions of data requests, transmitting information where it is needed in a fraction of a second and helping teams to decide optimal race strategies.

The USA's national cycling team uses a cloud-based application to generate precise real-time rider data to assist in making crucial adjustments in real time and deliver maximum performance output during training sessions.

Amateur sportspeople rely on cloud too, with over around 50 million runners now using the Runkeeper app which synchronises data to support them as they track their speed, mileage and timings as well as plan breaks.

One of the most exciting applications of cloud technology in sports relates more to the business side than the performance side. A by-product of all the information available to coaches is a that a subset of that data can be delivered to spectators in a live setting, adding to their sense of involvement. When provided with real time details and parameters during a game, their viewing experience can become a lot more immersive. The potential to involve commercial sponsors more deeply in this process is also starting to be realised.

Again, Major League Baseball is one of the pioneer sports in this field. Several teams are looking to cloud-based technology to cater the viewing experience at the level of the individual fan. Using their mobile device a spectator can watch replays in real time from their seat, while being served up tailored promotions on merchandise. This not only amounts to a better customer experience but a better business opportunity for the ballpark. Not even the biggest MLB brands can easily build and operate this kind of application on-premise using traditional infrastructure. Now even the smallest teams can use cloud to delight fans as well as expand their addressable market and make it effectively global.

The next steps in sport's cloud revolution will no doubt be to embed AI and ML more deeply into the technology to help identify trends ahead of the competition, then constantly refine data on those trends to make it actionable. Smart stadiums, augmented by IoT devices, will take consumer interactions to the next level. Like ambitious enterprises everywhere, sports organizations will apply cloud power to data sets in more and more imaginative ways to create better results and achieve a sharper competitive edge.

Sponsored by Google Cloud.

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