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Game-changing data part 2: How mathematics took over sports

February 22, 2016

Mehul Kapadia   

Blog contributor

In my previous post, I discussed the role of mathematics in delivering F1 success. Ultimately, the myriad of numbers and calculations all feed into a select few benchmarks that define F1 success. Where in the race did you finish? How many championship points did you earn? A common perception from pros and ex-pros who have been there and done that is that the numbers can lie.

Who would employ a mathematician over a former championship winning coach? Statistics are interesting snippets of information that sound great when a commentator rattles them off at a moment’s notice but it’s people who win at sport – right? Well, more sports are following the example of F1, using sophisticated statistical analysis to complement the visionary ideas and strategies of the experts.

Batting above your average

One example is baseball. The Oakland A’s calculated, analysed and economised their way from a regional division challenger to a play-off powerhouse between the years of 1996 and 2004 – a period now referred to as ‘the Moneyball years’. Given Oakland’s limited budget for salaries compared to other franchises, they needed to source players that were either undervalued or were showing potential but had gone unnoticed by rivals with deeper pockets.

The statistics commonly used at the time such as batting averages, runs batted in and stolen bases did not provide an adequate basis for doing so. In light of this, the A’s set about developing a rigorous process of statistical analysis, delving deeper into the stats that gave them more solid foundations on which to assess player performance. On-base percentage, a measure of how often a batter reaches base for any reason other than a fielding error, unveiled a meaningful way of measuring a batter’s strike rate. Slugging percentage, a mathematical equation that calculates the total bases divided by at bats (when the batter is batting against a pitcher), more accurately determines the power of a hitter than a statistic such as number of home runs.

Using such figures to recruit potential stars at a fraction of their true market value, the Oakland A’s emerged as the powerhouse of the American League West. In 2002 won, the A’s set an American League record winning streak of 20 games in a row – not bad for a franchise operating with around a third of the financial clout of the New York Yankees

One stat that matters

A similar example is how scouting databases are helping football clubs overcome the challenge of globalisation. Given the number of children who dream of becoming Premier League footballers, the challenge of singling out the next Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer left purely to traditional scouting methods.

Gone are the days when clubs spent their millions based on the scribbled notes of the flat-capped scout with an eye for potential. The vast majority of Premier League clubs are tapping into scouting databases such as Scout7’s. The database boasts 135,000 players worldwide for the perusal of the world’s top scouting teams, providing information on players including statistics such as appearances, goals, assists and man of the match performances.

By harnessing the power of such software to conduct their initial investigations, clubs can shortlist players based on specific criteria before watching them more closely and making a judgment on their potential transfer value.

Numbers are everywhere in sport and in a way they always have been. The most important piece of information about any sports event is usually a number. Who earned the most points? What was the score? How fast was their time? How many times have they won?

Where the gap between mathematics and sports has existed is in the measures sports men, women and teams take in order to change the all-important numbers that define success or failure. But increasingly we are seeing the role of data and analysis being used to find winning tactical formulas and find the best-value talent.

Do you agree? Let me know your take in the comments below.


Tata Communications was the Official Connectivity Provider of Formula 1® between 2012 and 2019. Tata Communications was also the Official Managed Connectivity Supplier to Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, and Official Digital Transformation Partner to ROKiT Williams Racing until the end of the 2019 season.