A Hunch Doesn't Win the Super Bowl Anymore. Big Data Does.

The unsung star of Sunday's Super Bowl wasn't Seattle's dominating defense, Bruno Mars' halftime show or the flashy commercials. It was data — Big Data, to be exact. Surprised? Embedded in every NFL team's playbook these days is a massive amount of information that teams collect, manage, decipher and store to make a winning drive. Welcome to the era of "datafication" in the NFL.

From Gamblers to Head Coaches, Everyone Is Drowning in Data 

Super Bowl predictions were awash in data, from Vegas lines and number man Nate Silver's Seattle pick to a data-driven machine that used an algorithm to simulate the game 50,000 and correctly predicted a Seahawks victory. But Sunday's Super Bowl matchup was just one example of how data is changing the face of the NFL. The evidence is everywhere: The Philadelphia Eagles recently hired a “sports-science coordinator” to maximize the team’s performance by tracking, analyzing and interpreting Big Data. The Washington Redskins, meanwhile, hired four IT staffers to build an ultra-fast wireless network at the team's headquarters and practice facility to allow coaches to replace hefty playbooks with iPads. 

This shift toward a reliance on data is all about winning. NFL teams are, in effect, enterprises that are looking to get a competitive edge with a combination of new technologies, mobile devices and Big Data analysis. For example, coaches analyze data to predict opponent's plays and to determine which areas of the field to target. As the New York Times' Judy Battista writes, this plethora of data can help coaches answer questions such as whether to kick a field goal or go for a first down, when to challenge a call and when to use a timeout. 

Away From the Cameras, Big Data's Impact Is Huge 

Game-day strategy is only part of the story. It's every personal trainer's job to keep athletes in game shape, and they're using data to take their jobs a step further. Trainers are leaning on new technology from companies such as Catapult Sports, an Australian sports science company whose GPS sensors track a player's every movement, to develop personalized training programs. They can even use this data to stop an injury before it occurs. At least 13 NFL teams have already incorporated Catapult information in their practices, according to Sports Illustrated.

Big Data is big business in America's most-popular sport. The Denver Broncos alone store hundreds of terabytes of information, the majority of which is top secret. X's and O's and gut feelings will always play a role in football, but as NFL teams more resemble businesses with IT staff and complex data needs, they must embrace backup and disaster recovery software as part of their everyday game plans. After all, Denver's lopsided 43-8 defeat shows that the human element is a factor that's difficult to predict.

[Image via Creative Commons user AnthonyQuintano]