The application of data analysis in the world of sport has a long journey ahead. We discuss all its potential with Javier Bosch, CEO of NBN23, a technology company that has taken the ‘tracking’ system to grassroots sport
Big data, or data analysis, is an increasingly widespread practice in large companies, and the world of sport is no exception. The objective of data extraction and interpretation should be to facilitate decision-making and in a sector like sport, where there is so much competitiveness and success depends on taking care of the smallest detail, any improvement in performance is crucial.
How do we convert big data into smart data? What parameters can be analyzed? What do sports organizations ask of these computer and data gurus? Javier Bosch, CEO and founder of NBN23, will help us analyze this world from the experience acquired in his own company. NBN23 is comprised of a team of designers, software and application developers, consultants and marketing and communication specialists who want to revolutionize the way we live and understand basketball through ‘Real Tracking’.
NBN23 was the best start-up of the Global Sports Innovation Competition held in Trento last year and represented Europe in the grand finale of the Rio 2016 Games. But the company and its reputation have grown a lot since then. Javier Bosch has been in New York, where he provided the company’s services to the NBA, in one of its junior tournaments, to offer live digital statistics. Upon his return, he was our guest in this webinar organized for our Alumni Cruyff Institute community.
Here we offer you a transcript of our conversation with Javier Bosch.
Javier is an entrepreneur and enthusiast, and has a degree in biology. After working for 13 years in the pharmaceutical industry, he decided to change his career and start a project in which he could channel his passion. NBN23 is the result of the union of technology and sport. Three years of effort that are culminating in the digitization of sport, seeking to improve the experience of athletes worldwide.
How can the way that big data and sports get along be improved?
The name of the presentation is ‘From Big Data to Smart Data’ and this is why we are listening all the time how important big data is in sport. We agree with that, but the first thing we need to do is help sport to start recording data. So, when we talk about smart data the first thing we are going to do is create that data in order to make it useful, so this big data will obtain what sport needs, which is: winning more games and winning more money in order to keep on going as a club or as a team.
What is NBN23 doing and why?
NBN23 stands for nothing but the net. We are a tech company, but we are basketball fans and basketball lovers. When we started the company, we had in mind a way to digitize what happens in every single basketball game. It doesn’t matter what your level is, you still want to know what you did. And whatever your level is, you are generating information that can be used if it’s properly digitized. And that’s why we created ‘Competition’, which was the first hardware we created. Competition is based on a lack we found on the market. We know that in every single basketball game all the actions are written in pen on the score sheet. This is the official paper that needs to be sent to the organizer of the competition. Still today, in 2017, this is done on paper. So, we thought of starting to digitize what has not yet been digitized because, on paper, there is no way to do analytics. It generates a lot of frustration for your organization, because if you ask a national federation ‘who is the best scorer under-13?’, they won’t be able to tell you because they don’t have the record. So, in order to do better scouting and to generate a better experience for the player, we think it can be done digitally. And it means going with a tablet, downloading a simple app where you have all your players already pre-loaded and starting to type what is going on. And then you create all the process of getting data, storing it, processing it and showing it. You will be able to get really value out of that.
How does the system work?
The system is based on three different sections. We have a packing manager, where we help the competition organizer to record all the data: let’s get all the registers controlled, who are the players, the coaches, the referees; let’s generate all the rules we need in order to create a competition, and let’s make it as complex as possible at the beginning so during the game it’s as simple as possible. Then there is an app that we use to record the stats, so all the actions that are usually recorded using in pen and paper will be typed into an app that you will see later. And then, we have a front end to display the info in a very nice way to generate more engagement with the fans and start showing what has been registered. So, if you have the content, you can generate more and more visuals based on that, so you can show it on a poster, on a website or on a big screen during the tournament. Basically, as a company, what we wanted to do was to be able to help grassroots teams to generate value in what they do.
Are you doing anything for professionals?
One and a half years ago, when we were working for grassroots teams, we took a look at what was going on in the NBA and we saw that they were offering special stats based on the precision of the players on the court. And we thought, ‘why doesn’t it exist anywhere else?’ And we realized that tracking players was very expensive and only NBA teams could do it. So, we started to think of a way to make it affordable for the rest of the leagues because, currently, there are only some teams in the NBA doing that and there are 450 million players in the world, so it didn’t make sense to wait for that technology. We use an internal GPS, very light and tiny, that allows us to know where the players are at any time by sending signals to installed locators in the arena. Some teams are already using heart-rate monitors taking lactic acid measurements, doing blood analytics, and getting feedback from the players themselves. The tracking system can help the performance because to get just 1% improvement over your rivals can make the difference. The players carry a small sensor about the size of a coin and as they enter the court you can see the system starts to record the data. When they finish the session, the data is saved and you can see the results: everything that has to do with player positioning, speed, distance run, accelerations, decelerations, heat maps… It’s a tool that has also been very well received by the physical trainers because they can get to know all about training sessions, so they see that if a player’s speed drops drastically it’s a clear indication that fatigue might be affecting him and they see it in real time. So, they can work on the performance and prevent injuries. The next step is to include this system during the games and TV broadcasts. So, at the same time you help to improve the performance of the team and also the fun experience of fans because they can get more and more data.
How is it that something as obvious as doing away with statistics on paper had not been implemented until now?
Every time you talk about changing the way you are doing things you have to fight against the change itself. The first barrier we jumped was ‘if they have been doing statistics with pen and paper forever, why would they change?’ One answer to this question and a challenge for us was that it was because there didn’t exist a 360 solution for that. You have different apps for different things, but to put it all together is not that easy. So, they had to consider two things: NBN is offering one solution for that and technology is needed on the court and hardware is needed, and you need a tablet, and the price of tablets has dropped a lot in the last years. So, the idea of having a €700 iPad in every single basketball court five years ago would have been crazy, but now you can have a $100 tablet in every court and it’s affordable. So, you have to get affordable technology and a 360 solution.
Extract from a reportage broadcasted in Movistar+
Could we say that smart data is only available for smart stadiums nowadays?
Smart is a probably too open a word. Smart data is smart data as long as you are able to do something with it. Smart stadiums are collecting a lot of data and, for sure, they are doing things with it, but you can get smart data from just some notes you take on a piece of paper. The thing is, the more you digitize and the more you organize and standardize the way you collect it, the more data you are going to have and the smarter it’s gonna be. So, we could say: data is smart as long as the guy looking at the data is smart.
Are coaches smart enough to understand and work with all the data? Or do tech people need to show them how to do it?
To be honest, we should ask ourselves, ‘are we smart enough to show them how good it is?’ Because, in my opinion, the best smart data today available is a coach’s strength. Coaches are processing a lot of data and they know who should be playing in which position; they analyze a lot of data coming from what they see, from what they know in advance (according to their training, if they had a personal issue, etc); so, the coach mixes everything and takes a decision. So, we have to be able to provide info so easily that, for them, it is natural to use it. And we are at an early stage for that. It doesn’t mean that coaches are not smart enough to use data, because actually they use it every day; the fact is that we are providing another source of info and we, the companies, need to be providing it in a natural way, so they don’t need to realize that they have much more info than before.
Do you think smart data could change training methods?
Yes. The first thing is to start gathering data. If a player gets injured today, and I can check what he did in the past two weeks and, more than that, if I have a look at what the players who have been injured had been training on for a certain amount of time, I could be able to predict that by doing this, that could happen. We are not close to do that, but I would say that by analyzing smart data, in the next 5-6 years, we will be able to change the way we practice.
You said in your presentation that you checked what was going on in NBA in terms of technology in order to develop your product. Did you also analyze what other sports are using technology?
For sure. We know that the most advanced technology used in sport comes from the NFL; they are using a lot of tracking and the system is very, very similar to ours. The solution is called Zebra, but instead of using Bluetooth, they use ultra wifi and RFID. By looking at them is how we did this match of ideas. We though basketball is good for tracking and tracking can be done with something else than just cameras that are so expensive. If we talk about grassroots sport and what they have been collecting, baseball is the sport that has been gathering data for longer, so we were looking at them as well.
When someone contracts your service, does the application come with everything, or does it have different phases depending on what the client wants?
It’s a good question because we don’t just provide an app, and this is somehing that we all have to understand. When we talk about digitization and going one step further, we need to understand that it’s not only downloading an app and it works, we are talking about changing the way things are done. We help the customer in the transition from paper to digital: we install the apps in the customer’s tablets and teach them how to manage it. So, the price includes not only the software and hardware, but also the account management. Companies have to be helped because otherwise change won’t happen.
The social component is very interesting. What is lacking in basketball to generate more fan engagement?
Well, if you look at the Spanish media, they are specialists in focusing mainly on one sport, which is football. You have to offer value to engage people and basketball is a very spectacular sport and something that it was lacking was a system to organize the data and show it in social networks in order to generate this engagement. For instance, the NBA spent a lot of money changing the camera system they had and they do have one way to record the games, in the traditional way, so you can see the match on TV, but also they can record having bigger images of the players, closer approach to the game, etc. So they can generate more visual material that will be sent to mobile phones and tablets and this generates more and more engagement with the fans, because they can share it. One thing that we have to learn from NBA is that most of the games are not watched completely, people usually watch highlights of the games, so something that basketball was missing from the professional to grassroots level was an easy way to display the data and organize it in a way that people can consume the data they need. But there is also a success story in basketball, which is the ‘Super Manager’ game. By gamifying the game, you get much more engagement and that is something we are going to do also with the grassroots level.
Smart data could be also a way to help scouts try to find the most promising players from grassroots teams, couldn’t it?
Absolutely. For sure, if you collect data, then you can organize it and check what has been the performance of the players during a certain amount of time. Even we think that we need to help grassroots players to enjoy the game like professionals, but in a funny way. Anyway, coming back to the question, we will be able in the near future to record not only what happened with the actions in basketball, but also, we are generating a new way to collect data based on values and players’ behavior during a game, so you will be able to see if someone is respectful, loyal, if he applies the effort that is needed for the team, and all these kinds of things that are gonna help the scouts to see not only good shooters, but also good players and good people.
Are you going to apply this technology to other sports?
Sure. We are jumping into the world of swimming with a new project, and in the near future we will also be getting into other sports. We started with basketball because we are very passionate about this sport, but smart data can be applied to many sports.
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