Effective use of technology and data in sports

The world continues to adopt technology to aid in decision making processes. Even one of our favourite pastimes is not immune to it – sports.

From our workplaces, to our shopping experiences, to our beloved sports, we’re seeing the accelerated application of data and technology across all facets of life. Noone will shout “Ball” at you for a substandard shopping choice whilst you use the aid of tech and data to make better decisions.

However, sports across codes and the world expect decision makers, like referees, to make perfect decisions with the tech and data they have at their fingertips. The passion of the sports fan and the desire for the ref to make the correct ‘call’ is not going anywhere. So is technology to blame? Is the data inaccurate? Or is human error unavoidable? Let’s explore.

Historic adoption of tech in sport

As is true for all key decision makers in sport, referee decisions are always under intense scrutiny. This creates plenty of controversy around the use of technology with various levels of success seen.

Technology and data are being used by umpires and referees to make high-pressure decisions. Here are some examples: 

  • The use of ‘Hawk-Eye’ ball tracking systems is standard in tennis to review line calls.
  • Video replay vision is used to review shot clock expiration and ‘last touch’ decisions in basketball.
  • The use of decision review system (DRS) in cricket combines various components such as Hawkeye, hot spot (infra-red imaging), and snicko (directional microphones) technology for umpire reviews.

The further adoption of tech in sport

The global sports market is estimated to be worth over 512 billion USD¹ in 2023. The sports industry is widely seen as an early enabler of new tech. For instance, using virtual reality (VR) to provide simulated environments and 360-degree views to enhance the match viewing experience. With the constant need to expand the consumer base, sports teams will implement new technology and data products to give them a cutting edge over their competitors. The overlaying sports leagues are no exception to this trend, and in particular football (a.k.a. soccer), where the leading English Premier League (EPL) is no stranger to leveraging data-driven decision making. The EPL implemented Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in the 2019-2020 season, due to the need for more accurate decisions during games which impacts competitive and large financial rewards for teams.

The VAR uses video footage to review decisions made by on-field referees, who may alter the on-field decision based on advice provided by the VAR. The aim of VAR’s introduction is to prevent ‘clear and obvious’ errors and ‘serious missed incidents’ to be managed and reviewed for accurate decisions made by referees and ultimately provide the right outcome for an on-field decision. Video replay technology is often standard for most sports and TV broadcasts in this modern age, so there is usually little fault with the technology or the data that it generates, thus its wide use and trust. However, since the beginning of the 2023-24 season, numerous incidents have highlighted the EPL’s ineffective use of VAR. Most notably the recent controversial match on 1st October 2023 between Liverpool and Tottenham during Gameweek 7.

The controversy

The Liverpool and Tottenham match had repercussions in the early title race, as both teams were early favourites to be EPL title contenders. During the match, a disallowed goal was the centre of controversy.  This was due to the VAR incorrectly disallowing a goal in what was initially described as ‘human error’ from within the VAR team (or 4th match officials using VAR) due to lapses in concentration. Luis Diaz scored a goal² in the 26th minute when both sides were goalless but it was determined to be ‘offside’ and disallowed by the on-field referee. As per the review process in place for decision making, the VAR Darren England was requested to check the decision. However, while conducting the review process, they made the assumption that the on-field decision was a goal and relayed the wrong advice to the on-field referee by saying ‘check complete’ -agreeing with the on-field decision. It led to the on-field referee mistakenly thinking their offside decision of was confirmed by review. Shortly after and within minutes, they were alerted to their mistake by the assistant VAR and also by their executive calling in from the VAR operations hub. However, the VAR officials did not delay the game to rectify the mistake even when communicated to do so, even with executive approval.

Ultimately, the failure to award the goal to Liverpool led to the loss of the match, as Tottenham went on to score a last-minute winner. Who knows what would have happened if Liverpool had been awarded that one goal. As of Gameweek 9, the positions of both teams could have been reversed if Liverpool ended up winning, to lead the league. However, we can see the considerable impact of this mistake on the outcome of the game, and potentially the outcome of the EPL at the end of the season.


The implications

There are significant financial implications as well. Higher positioning on the league table determines access to a share of TV broadcast income (€422 million for international rights³) and access to higher tiers of European competition like the Champions League which could unlock large revenue streams.

So, what can we take away from this when using data and technology to drive decision making?

Human failures combined with ineffective use of technology and data occur. But something that the governing body Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) for referees initially failed to recognise was a failure in the review process. When the audio was released of the communication between match officials, it was evident that the key fault was in the unclear communication channels and words used between match officials, and an emphasis on speed instead of accuracy. However, as we’ve established, accuracy in decision-making is crucial to success, as incorrect decisions may lead to significant repercussions.

Especially where there is manual human intervention in the use of technology and data, processes are put in place to ensure that human error is mitigated through controls across multiple points of human intervention. When we ignore such processes or there are inherent flaws in the design of such processes, this results in ineffective use of technology and data in decision making.


Technology and data help the process of decision making, they don’t make the decisions

At the end of the day, it is the humans, not the technology, that are ultimately making the decisions. It is important to thus recognise and fix failures in processes that are put in place to prevent human error. Lessons from this incident have led to changes in the VAR communication protocols to clearly confirm outcomes of VAR checks by all match officials (rather than just stating ‘check complete’). Thereby  preventing further failures due to a lack of due diligence, accountability, and unclear responsibilities in decision making.

With greater implementation of technology and data driven decision making, processes are key in ensuring that there are well-designed steps and controls when data is used in decisions where it is trusted and accurate. Our expertise and domain knowledge at Data Agility enables us to understand the interdependencies between people, technology, and processes. It forms the foundational principles of our enterprise information management framework we apply to all our projects. There is always the need to consider these three core concepts, in relation to enabling accurate and effective data-driven decision making. If your organization is thinking about new technology or data initiatives, contact the experts in realising effective and accurate decision making.




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