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Prof reflects on EURO 2016 using big data

While data help teams, superstar players matter more: Peter Chow-White

Spain's soccer team is seen celebrating their victory at UEFA Euro 2012.
Spain's soccer team is seen celebrating their victory at UEFA Euro 2012.

The 2016 UEFA European Championships are generating a worldwide buzz, with millions of people tuning in to watch every game. With so much at stake, it’s no surprise that analytics and big data are becoming a more important part of the decision process, according to SFU professor Dr. Peter Chow-White.

“Big data has become a really interesting touch point for people in different organizations and institutions to rethink how they create knowledge, how they create data, and how they use data to make decisions,” said Dr. Chow-White. “Sports is no different.

“Soccer was one of the earlier ones that got into it. Some of the earlier places like [AC] Milan have R&D departments that have been using data and different types of analytics in order to understand their players’ performance, recovery, all sorts of things. So it’s become an integral part of sports.”

With a high volume of information now available to these teams, the challenge is how to use it effectively.

“They want to be able to evaluate players in terms of making trades in the management point of view, but you [have] also got the coaches on the other side that want to evaluate performance either in practice and on the field, to make better decisions and have more intelligence in applying to the next game or their practices or whatever strategy they’re trying to create.”

Many teams may be using numbers in the decision-making process, but determining which teams are using them heavily and how they are using them is difficult.

“Sports is very secretive in terms of what they do and how they analyze things,” Dr. Chow-White explained. “So getting an inside look into what’s happening is very difficult. Most of what we know is on the outside except for those who have done research on these areas and have gotten inside different places.”

One of the challenges that soccer has in using numbers to make decisions is that it is a “continuity sport with low catalytic outcomes,” according to Dr. Chow-White. This means that there are not many stoppages in play such as basketball and baseball, and there are few events in it that drive play towards a winner.

“There’s lots to track, [in basketball and baseball] there’s lots of mini games, and there is lots of outcomes. Soccer and hockey are different, and I think the impact in those games is different on those sports than something like basketball or baseball.”

Dr. Chow-White also cautions teams not to invest fully in analytics and big data just yet.

“I don’t think that companies or teams should be spending a ton of money on this. Most of what happens in the game of soccer is [based on] what coaching decisions are made, player personnel, those are where the big things are. You got a Ronaldo on your team? It doesn’t matter what [you] do, he’s going to score goals.”

So what is Dr. Chow-White’s prediction for the winner of the 2016 EUROs?

“I’m going to go with whoever the superstars are playing with. You can have the best analytical team in the world, but if you don’t have the player personnel, then it’s not going to make the type of difference one would expect in terms of wins and losses.”

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