Aug 2016

Sport’s ‘Marginal Gains’: Databases, Analytics and Moneyball

Written by Paul Maher

Sport’s ‘Marginal Gains’: Databases, Analytics and Moneyball

The Premier League is back for another season and the Olympics is underway. Gold medals are to be won, and trophies lifted.

Behind the scenes, technology will play a huge part in who will be celebrating victory. Sport, a great reflection of modern society, has been revolutionised by the valuable addition of technology, in particular data, which has enhanced the performance of elite sports stars globally. Aggregating and analysing data to optimise performance has provided the marginal gains needed to win.

It was Dave Brailsford, the current Team Sky and former Team GB Cycling Director, who came up with term ‘marginal gains’. Originally created to propel British Cycling to the top of the pile, some of the most innovative companies in the world are now using a ‘marginal gains’ approach. For example, Google runs 12,000 data-driven experiments annually to excavate small performance weaknesses to enable small improvements and stay ahead of the game. Sport is now reaping the benefits of being able to manipulate data.

The process of harnessing data first became popular through Moneyball, a book about using advanced analytics to acquire talent, following the Oakland Athletics baseball team and their rise to the top. It highlighted that success was achievable with a significantly smaller budget than rivals by using a stats-based player approach to improve game-time performance.

Today, sports stars are equipped with sensors that monitor every aspect of their performance, including heart rate and metabolism to reaction time. This data allows managers and technical staff to determine the factors that influence player performance and consequently, the performance of the team. Much like for business, technology is now ingrained in sport and will continue to drive improved performance. It’s not only the players who benefit, customer engagement has reached another level because of data. After all, everybody loves a good stat, don’t they? Here are some examples of data and analytics in action:


Ever wondered how Premier League clubs such as Arsenal and Man Utd are carrying out their transfer business this summer? Wyscout enables top-flight clubs to have access to a database of every player in the world, see his stats, lodge a bid, and so on. It is a powerful tool combining player data into an easily digested database. So when your club signs an unknown striker for £500k and he goes on to be worth £40 million (think Mahrez at Leicester), you may now know how they unearthed the gem!

Team GB Cycling

GB Cycling’s now legendary success in the last two Olympic Games has caused jealous rivals to try and emulate their training programme. With data collected from sensors, such as power, speed and pedal revolutions, cyclists can get a full view of their performance, on the go, to improve their marginal gains. Brailsford, the pioneer of British Cycling, is a big believer in using technology to improve performance. Being able to tell what is going on with a riders physiology, metabolism, energy expenditure, and even sweat rates, produces a level of detail previous unseen: how much energy you’ve used, your hydration levels, how much you need to drink, what you need to eat, how your body is working, and so on.

German Football Team

Winning the World Cup is the pinnacle of any footballer’s career. The biggest sport in the world, the biggest stage in the world. How does one go about winning it? Germany’s football team were one of the first to utilise the value of Big Data, resulting in an impressive World Cup 2014 win. Using SAP software to analyse player data during training, as well as opponent tactics, the German team were able to optimise their performance, enhance team chemistry, and even avoid injuries.

England, please take note.


Basketball places a huge emphasis on statistics. NBA fan engagement has significantly improved with the introduction of advanced insights. Fans are able to find out stats for points, assists, steals, rebounds, and more. In essence, technology has created a much more complete user experience for NBA supporters. Using a SAP HANA database, the NBA can capture all data from every player on a court at the same time, giving fans a unique and unrivalled perspective of what is going on.
To put it simply, sport is undergoing a data revolution, and fans and players are both benefitting.
Just as businesses began to realise, harnessing the power of data can help sports organisations boost efficiency and performance, as well as improve their customer engagement and experience.
With Rio 2016 underway and athletes armed with real-time data, World Records are tumbling. Keep up the amazing work #TeamGB

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