The AFL season is about to kick off again, and fans are registering for fantasy footy competitions, scoping possible team selections, picking players, and forming leagues. Many are downloading apps that deliver breaking news, injury updates and live fantasy scores. Others are paying for and updating apps so they can access live coverage and match highlights, while perusing their club’s latest mobile offering. Fans are also combing Twitter to ensure they are following the journalists, commentators and armchair experts able to deliver the latest gossip, rumours, and even the occasional fact.
Enormous value is now attached to the digital media habits, social media accounts, user details and online preferences of football fans. This value is generated not so much by the individual preferences of fans, but by what happens when this information and activity is aggregated. From here, the rivers of data begin to flow.
Sitting at the heart of these developments is the expansion and power of digital sports data and the rise of so-called datatainment. As the current infatuation indicates, data comes in many forms. In sport, much of it is directed towards making money in a multi-screen media environment where internet-connected devices sit alongside television in the engagement of fans and the harvesting of user data.
For instance, fantasy sports are the product of a worldwide market for software packages, data sets and the processing of real-time athlete performance data. According to a US study, the fantasy sports industry now has ‘’participants in the millions’’ and delivers ‘’a financial impact in the billions [of dollars]’’. Similar types of player data are used in the creation of sports video games such as AFL Live for Xbox and PlayStation. This data ensures that the most skilled players on the field are the most sought after by gamers.
There is also a growing smartphone and tablet app economy in which leagues, clubs, sponsors and advertisers are playing a notable role. Specialist stats and infographic apps such as Stats Zone (soccer) and #Numbeez (multiple US sports and soccer) are fast gaining fan attention.
These mobile apps are delivering mountains of data about users, consumer behaviour and fan preferences. For leagues and clubs, this data underpins new social media strategies designed to capture the eyes of fans, and then their wallets, through membership, ticket and merchandise sales.
Sitting beneath the eye-line of many fans is a lucrative market in the supply of athlete performance data to wealthy sports, clubs, broadcasters, and the news media. Timing tools and wearable media devices that use GPS technologies, accelerometers, and gyroscopes deliver extensive analytics to coaches and sports scientists.
Many observers will recognise the name Champion Data, the company that supplies statistics to top-flight Australian football. But this provider is only one operator in the global sports data marketplace, which includes the likes of STATS, Opta, and Catapult Sports, an Australian-based company that has a host of international clients.
An expanding array of athlete performance measures and commercial datatainment probably excites fans obsessed by the AFL. It allows the consumption of more media and information about footy than ever before. The problem with this pattern is the widening gulf it creates between the data rich, including powerful codes like the AFL, and the data poor.
The latter includes many women’s, semi-professional, and disability sports and competitions that have long struggled to attract significant media attention, sponsorship, and spectators. The considerable financial, human and technological resources needed to generate and access comprehensive data suggests that this gulf will continue to widen.
Datatainment might be a superficially exciting addition to the sports media landscape. At a more fundamental level, however, it demonstrates that the old inequalities between the sporting haves and have-nots are not changing; they are just appearing on new screens.