Better Living Through Big Data

Will Big Data on Every Screen Make Defense the Talk of Sports?

Ken Kaplan Executive Editor, iQ by Intel

If you think the data describing a home run swing or a split-finger fastball is interesting, wait until you see the science behind shoestring catches and unbelievable line-drive snags by springy third basemen.

According to the man behind Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the media technology arm of MLB, showcasing this new data will turn defense into a hot topic of conversation, especially as die-hard baseball fans see it more often this year on screens at stadiums, home or their smartphones, tablets and laptops. This new data focused on defense could even bring digital gaming experiences to a new level, especially as sports fans increasingly watch a game using multiple screens — game on TV while tablet or phone is in hand check players’ stats online and commenting about each great play on Twitter.

Batting analytics get a lot of attention and there is a lot of focus on tracking the speed, break and location of pitches. Yet in a game determined by fractions of inches and seconds, there seems to be a void of real-time stats about fielding, said Bob Bowman, CEO of MLBAM, told a room full of baseball and tech fans at a recent Intel-sponsored Revolutionaries event at the Computer History Museum.

“We never measured a diving catch, the speed of an outfielder, the dynamics of a shoestring catch,” said Bowman.

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Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media with John Hollar, president and CEO of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

“Defense is ripe for capturing and sharing this kind of data for fans to see. Giving fans this data is going to help broaden the discussions around defense.”

Bowman played a video clip of a baseball game. Yellow arrows and stats tracked a jump that was 2-100ths of a second, faster than a blink of an eye. It allowed Atlanta Braves center fielder Jason Heyward to make an amazing diving catch. Data even measured the fielder’s burst of speed, which reached up to 18.5 miles an hour.

To capture this, an enormous amount of data tracking and analysis happens in a split second. That data has to be securely and reliably captured, crunched and displayed as fast as possible.

“This gives analysts and fans a lot more to talk about,” he said. “For the first time, will have empirical evidence to start or deepen debates about defense.”

He said that other sports, particularly football, will have to respond with burst of new data that better explains intricacies and science of the game. To that point, many sports have been turning fans on to more data recently. The 2013 America’s Cup, for example, add much more real-time race data during live video broadcasts and for the first time used race data to make officiating calls in real time.

Bowman was picked by Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig in 2000 to start what has become the interactive media and Internet company for all of the 30 professional MLB teams. As President and CEO of MLBAM since 2000, he believes Selig beat out other sports and other media companies by decade or more despite diving into the Internet just prior to the tech bubble burst of 2002.

“In 2000, the Internet was like a BFF today and gone tomorrow,” he said.

He remembers it took $500K to buy the mlb.com URL back then, plus months of free promotion to the law firm that previously owned it.

“When we started, it was a digital wasteland, but fertile ground,” he said. “We made lots of mistakes, but it was in a time when people didn’t care as much.”

When they launched live video in 2002, critics at the time critics said no one would watch or pay for it. Bowman didn’t entirely disagree. “It looked like crap,” he said, describing the fuzzy, choppy video playback in a small window on a computer screen. The heck with superimposing stats on video, it was too small and fuzzy to even see the numbers on players’ uniforms.

They stuck with it and went on to be the first to offer true HD on the Internet and now are working with 4K video, according to Bowman. His company not only operates MLB.com and sites of the 30 teams, it also provides the technology and wherewithal behind Internet video streaming of live sports and events for many top brands, include ESPN, which Bowman considers his best partner and toughest competitor.

Picked by Sports Illustrated as one of 50 most powerful people in sports, Bowman has helped MLBAM from streaming 18,000 live video events in 2012 to now more than 20,000 annually. His MLB spin-off is now considered by many to be New York’s largest born-and-bred technology company.

“Internet is not just some marketing medium,” he said. “In fact, we don’t even call it the Internet at any more, we just call it ‘the way we do business.’ Today Internet is life. It’s air. Everything will have connectivity and everything will use the Internet like air.”

The everyday nature of baseball makes it tough for true fans to attend each game, so early on Bowman and his team embraced wireless mobile technology. Today, half of their traffic is mobile.

“It’s tough to see all 81 home games, but the simple fact is people want access their team,” he said. “Our job is to bring baseball to anyplace in the world on any device with a plug or a battery,” he said.

MLBAM’s video streaming technology is a pioneer in bringing clear, visually engaging experiences to Tablets and smartphones. Today people to watch from almost anywhere, but also tune into multiple games, hunt down player stats and communicate online with other fans during the game, whether it be through sharing photos and comments on Twitter or video Skyping with fans who are actually at the game.

He remembers his team making apps for flip phones before smartphones came around.

“Now mobile is the way, whether it is hand or lap based, that’s how the next generation will follow baseball,” he said. “We will be feeding a million or more devices this year.”

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Mobile devices are accounting for a growing portion of the 12-13 million visitors MLB.com attracts each day. It has the highest grossing Apple iOS app called AtBat, which provides 30-second clips of current games, updates on favorite players and most talked about stories each day in baseball. Bowman said it’s the biggest selling sports app and one of the top grossing apps even in off season.

“Smartphones have become so important to us, but now there are tablets, minis and phablets,” he said. “Watching baseball games on tablet is an intimate experience fans love.”

Gameday, a pitch-by-pitch application, is one of the data technologies used to feed real-time game action to Major League Baseball fans. Even farm leagues, where many future major leaguers are playing today, are using this application to bring a lot more data to fans. Across different levels of the sport, the application is used to score around 150,000 games, according to Mathew Gould, vice president of corporate communications at MLB Advanced Media, the league’s technology arm, which owns Gameday. That adds up to around 720,000 pitches recorded using the application each season.

“Each game amasses 420 rows of event-based data,” said Gould in an interview with Intel Free Press. “By the end of the season, over a million rows of event day data is stored, documenting each pitch, hit, error, substitution of every game.”

All that stat data from the majors to the minors adds up to around 6 petabytes each of data each season, according to Gould.

Currently 10-percent of MLB.com’s audience is international, mostly accounting for fans in Asian and Latin America. With the proliferation of mobile devices and every baseball game translated into Spanish and Japanese, at least for the time being, the population of baseball fans could be poised for a steady climb into the future.

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Bowman said his team is also reviving an old baseball fan favorite, RBI baseball. He said it will re-launch on console and mobile very soon, and reports say it could be any day.

“Make it feel like it’s their team, like fans own it. Serve fans first.”

Photos by MLB.com.

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