A Numbers Game

September 17, 2012
Originally appeared in american way
By:
Joseph Guinto

Chicago-based Sportvision is bringing professional athletics into the information age. Most guys in the sports business don’t pepper conversation with words like vectors, velocity or granularity. But then, Hank Adams doesn’t run a typical sports company. His 14-year-old Sportvision is best known for its broadcast graphics — it created the bright yellow 1st & Ten line for football and the strike-zone box in Major League Baseball known as PITCHf/x. But Adams says Sportvision is really in the business of collecting data.

By next year, Sportvision expects its FIELDf/x technology will track everything that happens in a baseball game — from how fast an outfielder closes in on a fly ball to where a catcher sets up behind the plate. And within five years, it’ll be collecting that same kind of data in other professional sports as well. Adams chatted with American Way about how Sportvision — and the information it tallies — is, to borrow the company’s slogan, “changing the game.”

American Way: How do you think Sportvision will change — or is it already changing — major sporting contests?
Hank Adams: We want to make a complete digital record of a sporting event. We want to know the position, orientation and direction of players, cars, balls or whatever at every moment in a contest. That kind of data is going to become very essential to the operations of teams. Scouting, coaching, recruiting, drafting — all those things are going to be heavily influenced by getting inside the numbers.

AW: Seems like we’ve already got plenty of numbers in sports. How do you find valuable new data?
HA: Sometimes when I say “data,” people say, “Oh, you’re talking about goofy statistics.” That’s not it. The graphics we create that fans see — like the 1st & Ten line — are just one expression of the data we collect. What we collect is hard data that reflects performance, that gives you insight into performance and that allows you to be predictive of future performance. In NASCAR, we have something called the lead predictor, where we can project when one driver is going to overtake another. We correlate a lot of data on the car’s performance and can say, “Here is where this driver is going to run down and overtake the current leader.” That’s the kind of data we want to bring to every sport.

AW: Right now, you’re tracking only baseball players in that level of detail. What’s the difference between baseball and, say, football?
HA: In sports like soccer, baseball and basketball, you can track everything with just cameras. But in sports like football and hockey, where players are colliding a lot, you can’t just use cameras to get all the information from a game. For those sports, you need to put tracking devices on the
players themselves. We don’t have a deal to track players or equipment in those sports at the moment, but we are in discussions. I suspect that in five years, we’ll be tracking most everything in most major sports.

AW: What do players say about these new tools that can be used to gauge their performance?
HA: I’ve not really heard anyone who didn’t like it. Part of being a player is being analyzed and evaluated and tested all the time, so I think they’re used to it.

AW: You’ve spoken of the possibility of using the data you’re collecting not just to help teams evaluate performance but also to let amateurs play along with games in real time. Where does that stand now?
HA: Right now, I have software on my computer­ that lets me race against actual drivers in a ­NASCAR race in real time. We also have the ability to let you hit against a major-league pitcher in near real time. The technology is there. But what we’ve found is that what’s technically possible and what you can bring to market can be two different things. You have lots of rights and licensing issues. But we’re hoping we can bring these things to the market very soon.