Data in Sport

Andrew Dempsey examines whether new data has made sport become too robotic or it is a result of increasing professional standards, or perhaps both

In a bygone era, traditionalism was key in many facets of sport – it’s what arguably made it so appealing to so many before, but what the dawn of modernity has brought to the table is nothing short of extraordinary.  

We have seen how data driven high-end and elite sport has become – who can forget a certain Marcelo Bielsa showing all sorts of information to a room full of journalists to explain ‘Spygate’ – but what has it really achieved for sport as a whole? That’s a question that has been bugging plenty of ‘traditionalists’ in a sense. Clearly, the days of off the cuff football, rugby, Gaelic games and many other sports are numbered given such advances in sport. With so much analysis taking precedence over playing the game – what has this advance in data achieved in sport? 

It is no secret that many are fascinated by sport – both in a purist’s sense and also within a tactical and psychological sense. It really is something that is universal at the best of times. The concept of ‘Moneyball’ is key in understanding this article. The phrase or term was coined by the American media – and was popularised in 2011 by the creation of the movie which has a name that will surprise nobody; ‘Moneyball’.

Anyway, the concept attempts to remove many of the former and supposedly ‘dated’ methods of sporting research. It also places a major emphasis on statistics – for example what player to play where based on his/her technical ability of a given sport. Naturally, this is where grey lines begin to emerge. How is human judgement to tell us where we are to go to next? Are we really becoming that reliant on computer models? 

Perhaps as Irish people we’re just used to playing with no sort of a game plan, with the hope that ‘something may fall our way’, a shining light despite the clear and obvious shortfalls of our nation in a sporting sense. Is that maybe what endeared the O’Donovan brothers to the Irish sporting public in 2016 when they said all they did was ‘pull like a dog’ despite winning a silver medal at the Rio Olympics? Maybe it was a factor along with their charismatic charm and genuine bewilderment at all of the interest that accompanied their success on the boat during the 2016 Olympics. That, to many, is the beauty of sport at the best of times – an underdog story that all of us can get behind. Sporting achievements are only made possible by a serious drive and determination to win – but is that starting to slowly change?  

A few weeks ago, we saw Dublin lift their fifth consecutive Sam Maguire crown having defeated age-old rivals Kerry in an absorbing replay at Croke Park. Following the conclusion of the game – the customary trophy lift – there was a feeling that this achievement was not as special as it really should have been. A feat that had never been achieved before was almost brushed aside by some commentators as ‘inevitable’ and ‘routine’ – something that arguably should not be the case. This is perhaps the main part of the argument, are we as a human race becoming tired of seeing professional standards win all the time?

From the reaction to Dublin’s clear domination of Gaelic games – it appears so, justifiably or not, and that is clear. In a way Dublin have become the beacon of what ‘should’ be the standard for many clubs and counties within the GAA but is it feeling like it’s all too systematic and structured to be something to crave? Professionalism should be craved, but are we getting too bogged down in this mindset at times? Perhaps. 

Take the example of Manchester City – they are a strange example to be fair. There has clearly been a lot of money pumped into there from major benefactors, who are mostly based in the Middle East – a perfect target to be hated – look at RB Leipzig in Germany for example – but City, for some reason don’t experience that same level of hatred or jealousy. Maybe it was because of Liverpool last season in the Premier League, who nobody, bar Liverpool fans themselves, wanted them to win the league for the first time in decades. Why aren’t they subject to criticisms for clearly going down the route of robotism? It’s an interesting debate to be had, nonetheless.  

It is clear that traditional values are creeping out of sport, and in a way that should be viewed upon as a tragedy. Like many things in everyday life, sport has become a victim to commercialism at the elite-level. Clearly, commercial practices have its benefits but when it is clearly abused, it needs to be addressed, which it doesn’t appear to be at the minute.

Who knows what kind of a sphere we will be looking at sport through in the future? That’s the beauty of it all. The emergence of sports science and data has definitely improved the viewing experience, that much is certain, but is it too much at times?