MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Big data and sports: Are we all just becoming points of data?

While seemingly new, analytics have been used in sports for decades. After all, what was then-called Rotisserie League baseball (now Fantasy League) was all about picking baseball players based on their statistics.

The most famous use of data and analytics in sports is arguably the popular book and movie, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the true story of how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, used analytics to build a successful baseball team.

Today, Big Data is the latest extension of how (and why) sports organizations are using information to make better business decisions. As Dave Feinlab of Forbes writes in “Big Sports: Powered by Big Data,” “Big Sports is Big Business, and Big Business nowadays means Big Data…”

Big Data in sports is not really about player performance, but about arena management, fan interests, and ultimately, revenue. In his article, Fienlab shares a glimpse of the future regarding the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium: “A capacity crowd in the 68,500-seat [new 49ers stadium], slated to open in 2014, can be expected to generate an enormous amount of data per game on site.”

That data includes core business data, such as attendance rates and concession sales, all in real time. In fact, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, thinks this data is even more important than information gleaned from social media.

“I believe that the power of Big Data is that it is information about people’s behavior instead of information about their beliefs,” said Pentland in his presentation, Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data. “It’s about the behavior of customers, employees, and prospects of your new business. It’s not about things you post on Facebook, and it’s not about your search on Google, which is what most people think about, and it’s not data from internal company processes and RFIDs.”

Pentland argues that the value is no longer in averages, and that “social phenomena are really made up of millions of small transactions between individuals.” He terms this a “new era of social physics, where it’s the details of all the particles—the you and me—that actually determine the outcome.

How will this be applied to the business of sports? One can envision a scenario where an arena doesn’t just look at the average sales of, say Fenway Franks, per game, but also looks at how many Franks sold by section, by inning, and by opponent. And then they can analyze how many Franks each season ticket holder buys.

As a result, you become the data point. How do you feel about that?

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland is among the most-cited computational scientists in the world, and a pioneer in computational social science, organizational engineering, and mobile computing. He directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program.  He is an advisor for the World Economic Forum, Nissan Motor Corporation, and a variety of start-up firms.