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What Data-Driven Soccer Could Look Like During the Next World Cup

Imagine what soccer could look if Silicon Valley gets its big data hands on the beautiful game.

Cape Town stadium, 2010 World Cup. Image: warrenski/Flickr

The world of sport is already incredibly data-driven. In anticipation of the NFL draft, teams will pour over health data to gauge risks in player investment. In baseball, Oakland Athletics manager Billy Bean, who brought sabermetrics to the game, plans to use high-performance cameras loaded with software to pull data on all onfield action to help evaluate players.

Imagine what soccer could look if Silicon Valley gets its big data hands on the game. 

Near Future Laboratory's Winning Formula project, an attempt to predict the future in the form of a newspaper from April 2018, dove into the depths of what data-driven football could look like in less than half a decade. The faux paper paints a picture of the future of soccer just two months before World Cup 2018. 

"How will the so-called beautiful game of global football be different in a world where sport itself, and the culture of the fans who love it, is altered by the rush of data, quantification, analytics and digital delivery?" the website teases. "What might a high-stakes match of the near future be like when every move is measured, and every tactic forecast by silicon?"

"I think there are a couple of areas where data jumps out right now," said Changeist's Scott Smith, who collaborated on the project, in a YouTube video produced for the project. "The number of teams using data to analyze performance has changed really fast. And if you think that money has changed the players a team can buy, money also changes the IT that a team uses to analyze." 

The NBA recently installed a system of high-performance cameras called SportsVu in every NBA team arena, giving team organizations access to big data that will help them fine-tune player conditioning practices and development, as well as retool overall game strategy. The NFL Vision platform, now in use by all 32 NFL teams, logs video clips for all recorded statistics, and tags them to the players. According to CIO, this data is then made sortable by playing surface (types of grass or artificial turf), stadium, weather conditions, and other variables.

The sports cover page of the nameless future newspaper features both a Manchester City and Barcelona football player with text that reads "The Men vs. The Machine: Culture clash in Manchester." The story speculates on how Manchester United would look if it were owned by IBM. Near Future Laboratory's answer is that a 15-man IBM "data squad" has brought more wins through experimental laboratory tactics, but at the expense of excitement. Big data has made Manchester United's style of play boring to watch. 

Another headline in the 2018 paper reads "Big data becomes big investor in football," along with a picture of Google's Sergey Brin looking perfectly unfashionable in his Google Glass headgear. The article imagines Brin getting into sports ownership by outright purchasing FC Zenit St. Petersburg (Brin is Russian). And in this future soccer world, he's not the only Silicon Valley big wig buying in, only the latest. 

Whether Silicon Valley titans start buying soccer teams or not, we could well imagine a future where teams hire tech talent to develop trademarked systems and algorithms that give them a competitive age. Then probably sue the hell out of other teams that infringe on their intellectual property. If you ask me, it's a wonder it hasn't already happened. 

Is this the path we're headed down? In preparation for this year's World Cup, the German Football Association (DFG) partnered with SAP to bring the company's Match Insights software, which runs on the HANA platform, into its training program. Match Insights can be used by coaches and players before and after matches to analyze data points, and thus enhance performance.

According to SAP, "in just 10 minutes, 10 players can produce over 7 million data points." Germany, which was a tough team in 2006 and 2010, has only gotten better this time around. Does the team's access to and ability to analyze vast stores of big data account for its success on the pitch, including it's 4-0 evisceration of a strong Spanish team? We can't know for sure, but put simply, Germany knows what a lot of other teams do not, and this is no doubt valuable.

Near Future Laboratory also envisions agents "doping" (inflating) their player's performance forecast data to give them a statistical edge in contract negotiations. Under data doping, mediocre players find their stock rise through the efforts of their agents. Agents already go to exceptional lengths to sell their players (think Scott Boras from MLB), why not bring data into the process for that extra edge?

Image: Near Future Laboratory

And in Winning Formula's depiction of the future of soccer, hacking comes to the sporting world. In one article, a DDoS is staged in retaliation for one team's players refusing to fix a match. Far-fetched? Maybe: It doesn't seem likely that the world of activist or state-sponsored cyberattacks will intersect with sports betting, although one never knows.

But, teams hacking competitor teams? That's in the realm of possibility. If it's going to happen in any sport, my money is on Bill Bellicheck, whose Patriots infamously and secretly filmed opposing team practices in the "Spygate" scandal, giving it a shot in the next few years. 

Near Future Laboratory's Winning Formula project brings a lot of other interesting Big Sports Data ideas to the table; it's worth a read. It also serves as a reminder during the ongoing World Cup—which we often view through rose-colored, nationalist glasses—that sport has always been about profit, and it's also always had its cheats.

This isn't going to change, even with innovations like goal-line technology and tracking metrics. In the future, with advancing software and big data mining techniques, competitive advantage is just going to get a whole lot more technical. And while Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg might not purchase MLS or European soccer teams, their influence might make the sport seem a lot more like Silicon Valley.