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The Super Bowl: A Big Day for Sports That Needs Big Data

Feb. 3, 2016 ⋅ Categories: Analytics, Big Data

This time of year, everyone’s a football fan. It’s hard not to be when the National Football League has built up the Super Bowl to be the pinnacle of entertainment. Like any other business, the NFL has taken advantage of big data to make it work and create a more immersive experience for fans. That includes everything from game predictions to Super Bowl advertisements.

In the last few years, the NFL has had sensors installed in stadiums as well as in players’ helmets and pads to collect position data and send that to their coaches and fans in real-time. This data can detail information from a player’s movement on the field to whether an athlete has endured a potential head injury.

To make this possible, the NFL teamed up with Zebra Technologies to supply the radio-frequency identification sensors and with Microsoft to make this data available to coaches through Surface tablets. Now, the athletes create data as they play, and coaches can then have this information at their fingertips. This allows them to review plays as they’re happening on the field as well as look at information from the NFL databank. To get to fans, that information is sent to a NFL broadcasting truck that then sends it to the cloud data centers, Zebra’s Director of Sports Products Michael King explained to Fortune.

The hope is to not only provide valuable data to the teams but to also allow fans the chance to insert themselves in the experience, giving the NFL another opportunity to capitalize on them.

“The best fans are the most engaged fans,” King told Fortune. “They will pay for subscription plans to get this data.”

This isn’t the first time the NFL has dipped into data, though. Actually, because the NFL is statistics-dependent like any other sports league, it’s been collecting these numbers for a long time, even before big data took over every other industry.

Its data collecting has come a long way since then, though, and is trying to go as far as predicting the outcome of games. Already, a company called Varick Media Management has designed its own “Prediction Machine” that analyzes different player matchups from more than 30,000 games over 35 years to make predictions.

With all the ways data is now collected, people are closer to “seeing the future” in football through computer algorithms, and that’s exciting for anyone, particularly fans with a personal or financial stake in the outcome of the game. This system is still far from perfect, though, with a 69 percent accuracy rating.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to use data to that end. In fact, for the 2015 Super Bowl, Electronic Arts, the producer of the Madden NFL video games, not only predicted who would win the game, it foresaw Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four touchdown passes and the winning pass that went to wide receiver Julian Edelman.

Data for the NFL, just like the Super Bowl itself, has gone beyond just the game of football. Forbes magazine explained that data from last year’s game showed that most of the interaction took place online after the game, which could be great news for companies who can’t afford the $5 million price tag for a Super Bowl ad spot.

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