Making sense of sports data: Interview with Rob Esteva, MD of The Stats Zone

Sports data is driving increased value for many verticals including gaming and betting, sports performance, digital media and broadcasting. As sport professionalises and financial gains increase, the role of data in protecting sports “integrity” has also never been greater.

Consequently, the strategic significance of sports data to rights owners is on the rise. However as data has become increasingly accessible and available and more and more providers have entered the market, the term “sports data” has itself become somewhat ambiguous.

It was with this context in mind that The Fowler spoke with Rob Esteva, sports data expert and Managing Director of The Stats Zone.

The Fowler: Data is a huge topic in sports right now but can be an abstract term for many. How would you break down the sports data market?

Rob Esteva: That question pretty much sums up how it is viewed within sport itself. There’s a general sense that you should have data and you should use and embrace data, but for all the money that is spent on data collection, there is still a lack of appreciation for what exactly can and should be done with the data.

There are mainstream providers who are well established in the industry and have built successful businesses around their data collection. There are low-cost data collection operators who offer solutions but the integrity and quality of their data is questionable. And then there are companies who provide bespoke data collection solutions which are exclusive to the client, and these are becoming increasingly popular.

There are so many data companies now that have sprung up in countries where costs of collection can be so much lower than countries like the UK which is a threat to the mainstream data providers who will struggle to compete with some of the prices that they can offer. However, I would always advise a thorough analysis of the data itself – you typically get what you pay for, and as the phrase goes with any form of statistical analysis, ‘if you put garbage in, you get garbage out!’

The Fowler: What do you see as the most important challenges facing the sports data industry today?

Rob Esteva: Data is becoming increasingly available in the public domain and this is largely thanks to the American influence from their sports rubbing off on to other sports. Look at the stats section on NFL.com or NHL.com and you’ll see just how much importance is given to stats and data. The biggest challenge for the sports data industry is ensuring data is readily available but preserving the actual value of it.

nfl-stats

The amount of data that is collected on sport is phenomenal. The issue is that many rights’ owners do not always know what to do with it and the ‘short-term’ outlook that so many football clubs have does not lend itself to proper management of the data they buy. To give an example, many clubs buy services from the likes of Opta, Prozone, Stats, Wyscout, InStat and Scout7. They offer similar features but they all have different strengths. With such a turnover in staff at clubs, very few build an infrastructure that will absorb data feeds, video etc that will survive individuals and so the transfer of knowledge and information is rarely passed on properly. Given the amount of money that is spent by clubs on such services, clubs really do need to start thinking a bit more long term and storing data and information they have for the long haul. In so many ways, this approach benefits the mainstream providers as they can take advantage of the inefficiencies of the clubs, but at the same time, it holds future development back.

The Fowler: What sports data trends are you keeping an eye on for the coming years?

Rob Esteva: Physical data is going to become more and more affordable to collect and will in turn become more available outside of the elite sports and teams. Gone are the days where ‘distance run’ is seen as an interesting stat. It tells us next to nothing. However, data is recorded on impacts in heavy contact sports like NFL and there is some great work being done in this area so I fully expect safety improvements to be made in similar sports to improve health and safety using such data.

The other key development I expect to see is sports federations and tournament organisers bringing their collection ‘in-house’. That may not necessarily mean they do it themselves, but I envisage many building teams or using companies that exclusively collect data on their behalf. Preserving the integrity of their sport is key and data is a big part of that. There is a fundamental conflict in buying data from companies who also provide the betting industry with the very same data from the one person collecting the data in the stadium or arena. The penny is dropping with some rights’ holders, but this is one area I expect to develop further in coming years.

The Fowler: How did you get started in sports data and what advice would you give to others trying to break in to the industry?

Rob Esteva: I’ve worked in sports data and performance analysis all my career. After the realisation I wouldn’t make it as a footballer or cricketer, I decided the next best thing was to work in sport and as close as I could to it!

I started by joining the Press Association on the World Football department inputting data on live football matches and then updating the database to ensure the player and team information was accurate. It was not the £30k per year job I expected when I left university and I owed more in student loans than my annual salary at that point. However, it was a great foundation to start my career and I have ended up working with many of the same people over the last 15 years as I, and they, have moved on to different projects.

I would be lying if I said I knew that I wanted my own company back then and I would be doing this type of work. I did however know what I didn’t want to do, and that is sometimes just as important as knowing what you do want to do. I have been fortunate enough to work on different sides of sport – clubs (Everton and Brentford), confederations (UEFA), commercial entities/providers (Press Association, Smartodds), and that has helped shape my career significantly.

– – – – –

About Rob Esteva:

Rob is the Founder and Managing Director of TSZ. He launched TSZ in 2015 after identifying a gap in the market between those who can analyse sport, and those who can crunch the numbers in sport. TSZ provide services to leading clubs, associations and federations and help them be a little more informed and smart about how they use the data they have and maximise the value of it. You can find out more on www.thestatszone.com and follow both The Stats Zone (@thestatszone) and Rob on Twitter (@robesteva).

About the author of this post:

David is a Chartered Marketer with more than 15 years’ experience in international sports marketing roles. You can follow David on twitter (@davidgfowler) or connect on LinkedIn (ch.linkedin.com/in/davidgfowler).

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