The rise of footy datatainment

Associate Professor Brett Hutchins.
Associate Professor Brett Hutchins.

By  Associate Professor Brett Hutchins

The AFL season is about to kick off again. Tens of thousands of fans are presently registering for fantasy footy competitions, scoping possible team selections, picking players, and forming leagues with friends and strangers.

Many are downloading the tablet and smartphone apps that deliver breaking team and player news, injury updates, and live fantasy scores. Others are paying for and updating the league and broadcaster apps so they can access live coverage and match highlights, in addition to perusing their club’s latest mobile offering.

Followers are also combing Twitter to ensure they are following the journalists, commentators, and armchair experts able to deliver the latest gossip, rumours, and even the occasional fact. 

Enormous value is now attached to the digital media habits, social media accounts, user details and online preferences of football fans. This value is generated not so much by the individual preferences of fans, but what happens when this information and activity is aggregated. It is at this point that the rivers of data begin to flow. 

Sitting at the heart of these developments is the expansion and power of digital sports data and the rise of so-called datatainment. As the current infatuation with Big Data indicates, data comes in many forms. In the case of sport, much of it is directed towards making money in a multi-screen media environment where internet-connected smartphones, tablets, and computers sit alongside television in the engagement of fans and the harvesting of user data.

For instance, fantasy sports are the product of a worldwide market for software packages, data sets and the processing of real-time athlete performance data. According to a major US study, the fantasy sports industry now has ‘participants in the millions’ and delivers ‘a financial impact in the billions’.

Similar types of player data are used in the creation of regularly updated sports video games such as AFL Live for Xbox and PlayStation. This data ensures that the most skilled players on the field are the most sought after by gamers. 

There is also a growing smartphone and tablet ‘app economy’ in which leagues, clubs, sponsors and advertisers are playing a notable role. Specialist stats and infographic apps such as Stats Zone (soccer) and #Numbeez (multiple US sports and soccer) are fast becoming a focus of fan attention in the UK, Europe, US and Australia.

These types of mobile apps are delivering mountains of data about users, consumer behaviour and fan preferences. For leagues and clubs, this data underpins new social media strategies designed to capture the eyes of fans, and then their wallets through membership, ticket and merchandise sales. 

Sitting beneath the eye-line of many fans is a lucrative market in the supply of athlete performance data to wealthy sports, clubs, broadcasters, and news media outlets. Timing tools and wearable media devices that use GPS technologies, accelerometers, and gyroscopes deliver extensive analytics to coaches and sports scientists. Many observers will recognise the name Champion Data, the company that supplies statistics to top-flight Australian football.

But this provider is only one operator in the global sports data marketplace, which includes the likes of STATSOpta, andCatapult Sports – an Australian-based company that boasts a host of international clients. This is a market that services the likes of Manchester City, the moneyed English Premier League soccer club that reportedly employs 10 full-time data analysts to work with their first team alone. 

An expanding array of athlete performance measures and commercial datatainment probably excites fans obsessed by the AFL. It allows the consumption of more media and information about footy than ever before.

The problem with this pattern is the widening gulf it creates between the ‘data-rich’, including all-powerful football codes like the AFL, and the ‘data poor’. The latter include many women’s, semi-professional, and disability sports and competitions that have long struggled to attract significant media attention, sponsorship, and spectators.

The considerable financial, human and technological resources needed to generate and access comprehensive data suggests that this gulf will continue to widen. 

Datatainment might be a superficially exciting addition to the sports media landscape. At a more fundamental level, however, it demonstrates that the old inequalities between the sporting ‘haves and have-nots’ are not changing. They are just appearing on new screens. 

Associate Professor Brett Hutchins is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Monash University and co-author of the book, Sport Beyond Television: The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport.