How Can IBM Watson Help Professional Sports Teams Win Championships?

Imagine if some cities, like Atlanta, and their sports franchises won more championships. Well, Watson could give NFL, NBA, MLB and other sports teams a competitive advantage. Over lunch, I asked my colleague, Alex Josephs, who is the Digital Technical Sales Manager for Watson Analytics, to tell more about how Watson Analytics can help more sports team win. He explained to me that in the NFL, for example, teams are using Watson for drafting, contracts, performance and injury, and competitive strategies. Here’s a snippet of our conversation:

Marquis Cabrera: Alex, can you tell me more about the sport industry Watson use cases?

Alex Josephs: There are numerous use cases that NFL teams can use [Watson Analytics] for. Draft analysis is just the tip of the iceberg and the first project I had worked on with one NFL team. We are gathering all kinds of data; college performance, injury history, combine results and comparing that to other successful players in their position currently in the NFL. This gives a holistic view and a better idea for how each player might perform once they enter the league. With $1.1 billion spent on contracts in the recent draft, you can see how important it is to pick the right player. Another project is weekly opponent planning. This is a little bit easier as all the data is readily available and much is provided by the league. We look at tendencies of players and coaches in specific situations against certain teams and formations, and then of course the results. Finally, as all of these team are businesses, we are working with a team on season ticket holder attrition. Keeping a customer is much cheaper then attracting new ones, and season ticket sales are a much more reliable source of revenue then single game tickets. This project brings in a lot of data you wouldn’t consider at first, such as merchandise sales, the game day experience, and even social media. Ultimately many of these projects can be tied back to a lot of us are doing in our day jobs.

Marquis Cabrera: What types of data sets does the league provide? How are we analyzing those data sets?

Alex Josephs: There is a lot of league provided data teams receive. In my experience, I have seen many teams augmenting what the league provides with data points they are collecting on their own. This can create a large data lake and sometimes make these projects difficult. To overcome this, we first identify the goals of a project, and create success criteria together which ensures we are all aligned. Then we begin creating the data necessary to solve our problem. This is possibly the most important phase as we want to have the right mix of data points, but we don’t want to create noise for ourselves. Often the best insights are unexpected, which is why Watson Analytics can be so helpful for many people as it takes an unbiased approach to data discovery. It is analyzing the data with you and constantly suggesting new or interesting insights you might have never considered without the help of Watson Analytics.

It is a very exciting time to be working at IBM as Watson has become the platform for business. We are transforming entire industries and creating cognitive systems that are solving problems thought to be impossible even 5 years ago. We are helping to cure cancer, making education easier and more readily available to all. In this scenario, hopefully helping some football teams win a few more games.

Marquis Cabrera: What can Watson do in the future to help sports leagues win a few more games?

Alex Josephs: Future uses cases that we feel comfortable talking about that are not on our roadmap right now... Don't want to give away our sauce. I am not sure what all the rules are in the NFL and other leagues, but I personally see more real time and in game analytics. Coaches could be making in game adjustments based on data gathered from the current game. I know the NBA has invested heavily in sensors in stadiums to record players’ movement and speed. Things like that can help to identify performance, tendencies, and strategies in real time. It will also lead to really cool new visualization types, things like heat maps that can be overlaid with performance statistics.

Marquis Cabrera: What were the most frequently asked questions at your World of Watson Sports Analytics session?

Alex Josephs: There were a couple FAQs from our two sessions. Many people wanted to know the results of our draft analysis project, but the truth is teams can only get a full picture of the success of a draft 2-4 years afterwards. We are still in the very beginning stage of that project. Another questions was if coaches are actually embracing this new analytical approach. The truth is that it is still pretty mixed. Some coaches have fully embraced it, others still believe they know how to lead men and don’t need all this extra information. I think you can imagine what my position is!

Marquis Cabrera: During the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Casey Wasserman summed up the impact of analytics on the sports industry: “Use data as an equalizer. Don’t argue about facts, argue about how to use them.” Instead of hating on the fact that Tom Brady and the Patriots win often, more NFL teams should use Watson to do recruiting, strategizing, and game planning. Instead of hanging out at the combine, scouts might want to recruit (and get a demo of) Watson.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are not official IBM opinions.

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