How Big Data Analytics Is Driving Fantasy Football Participation

About 25 million people this fall will be playing in numerous fantasy football leagues, a burgeoning business that will generate $1.1 billion in revenues.

Big data analytics systems are most often connected with enterprise business, but the types of work they do also can be directly applied into a number of consumer markets.

Sports, fans with PCs—mobile and otherwise—and big data are all pretty much made for each other. This is especially true when it comes to fantasy sports, an ever-more-popular pastime with participants numbering in the millions.

These fantasy leagues also are a highly profitable businesses for online hosts, thanks to all the advertising opportunities that are being sold. According to a recent survey, about 25 million people this fall will be playing in numerous fantasy football leagues, a burgeoning business that will generate $1.1 billion in revenues. That is some serious income.

Fantasy Football Participation Growing Quickly

Baseball is the original statistician's wonderland, with literally hundreds of categories to discuss and analyze, ranging from earned-run-averages, to on-base percentages, to records reaching back more than a century. However, fantasy sports—which started in the 1980s and in which online participants choose players on active rosters and carry on their own fictional games based on their real-world performances—are gaining more followers every year. Essentially, users build their own sports "franchises" without having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries.

With football season starting this week, the gridiron fantasy league world is a timely use case for modern applications of big data analysis systems. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s participants would have paper binders full of rosters, stats, records and comments—and calculate and update all the performances only after the game statistics were published the next day in the newspaper—everything now is registered and recorded in real time and made available on demand, not to mention on whatever screen you choose to use.

All participants need to do now is sign up for an account on CBS Sports, or any number of the hundreds of other sites that offer free—or pay to play—services. On "draft day, "users create their teams, select their favorite players for each position, and then watch the system service do its thing by forming the standings and keeping track of all the performance stats of each player. The data emanates from more than 5 million sources, including on-field sensors, video feeds and others. This is all collected and analyzed to give teams and fantasy football players a competitive edge.

New IT, Analytics Paving the Way

New IT is helping increase participation in fantasy football, with a recent Intel study showing that 75 percent of participants want real-time, detailed data to help them in their leagues. Seventy percent of those surveyed said new technologies are increasing the amount of time they're spending on fantasy football; 66 percent said that Websites and apps that help evaluate talent and offer tips and tools for managing their teams are important to their experience.

Intel officials want to show that the company's offerings—from Xeon processors that power servers to their Apache Hadoop distribution that helps analyze data that's collected—are driving the technology scene for both fantasy football participants and the professional teams they follow.

Intel executives sat with business executives and Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice to talk about how technology is impacting the game for both players and fantasy players.

"It [the increased fan participation] is really driven by the cost of the technology," Boyd Davis, vice president and general manager of Intel's Datacenter Software Division, said in a panel discussion Aug. 28 in San Francisco. "The pace of innovation has driven costs down. This has allowed the organizations who provide these tools—the networks and the other media outlets—to use fantasy football as a way to have a tighter, richer experience with their consumers."

Rice agreed, saying he thought the biggest benefit that cloud-based, real-time analytics of fantasy football provides is the immediate connection of the data and the games to the users.

'Fans Want to Be Connected'

"[Fantasy football] is one of those situations in which the fans want to be connected to their favorite players," the former 49ers and Raiders Hall of Fame wide receiver said. "With all the stats and data the fans now have, as opposed to when I played, it's amazing all the opportunities that are now available."

An example of this new-gen IT involves both Intel and SAP, which in late August launched a new player comparison tool—a fast cloud-based service that on the back end runs on Intel Xeon chips and SAP's HANA in-memory database. This provides fantasy footballers with access to advanced analytics, so they can make better-informed personnel decisions.

The tool forecasts professional football statistics, guiding users to make game-day decisions by factoring in statistical performance and intangibles such as weather, injuries, game location, player rest and others. Fans thus can compare, analyze and customize comprehensive player data to make better, smarter and faster decisions on their fantasy football teams.

A cottage industry is growing up around fantasy sports leagues. Intel Graph Builder for Apache Hadoop is an open-source software tool that converts separate pieces of information into Web-like graphs that can be used to help visualize relationships and patterns in data. These visualizations help coaches explore the connections between a variety of game conditions and the team's performance.

Using Intel Graph Builder, teams also could determine how factors such as weather, time of day, travel schedules, team composition and the frequency of injuries could affect the likelihood of a win.

STATS, a sports technology, data and content services provider, uses Xeon processor-based servers for real-time scores, historical sports information and turnkey fantasy sports platforms. This information is provided to media companies and professional sports leagues, and to teams for dynamic in-game broadcast presentations and virtual images, multimedia enhancements and game analysis and tactical coaching tools.

eWEEK Senior Editor Jeff Burt contributed to this story.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...