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Keep your eye on the ball: How data analysis is impacting football in Spain

Football is the number one sport in the world, but how can it be improved for players, teams, fans and more? Rafael Zambrano, head of data science at LaLiga, spoke with DataIQ to explain where data and analytics were for Spain’s top flight football league and where it is set to go in the future.

DataIQ (DIQ): Prior to the creation of LaLiga Tech, how was data being captured, analysed and distributed to clients and clubs?

Rafael Zambrano (RZ): Processes were essentially manual. Before 2013 and the change of the LaLiga presidency, there was no data or technology strategy, which meant each club would have their own processes and there was no centralised way to handle it. With the adoption of the Databricks lakehouse platform, we have made significant progress in our ability to analyse and interpret data for the benefit of players, fans and clients alike. We are now able to gain insights that were unheard of before, using match statistics and in-play analysis to improve performance. The lakehouse platform has set the foundation for LaLiga Tech, allowing us to use data as a tool to improve the game and set the bar for the industry, pioneering the way forward for data-driven sports.

DIQ: What is the profile of data science within LaLiga Tech in terms of the number of data scientists and their background – do they come from a sports analytics background, or are they data scientists first and foremost?

RZ: LaLiga Tech has a team of more than 150 in-house experts who come from a variety of backgrounds, some sports, some finance, legal and even retail. The team has been built based on expertise in data science, analysis and programming, which are skills that we saw were lacking in the sports and entertainment industry some years ago.

DIQ: Is the data captured and analysed being used by all clubs in the league or have you seen some early adopters and any resistors? And how about its use by media and broadcasters – are they innovating with their on-screen presentation using your data?

RZ: Our technology and data solutions are available to all clubs. As a league it is important that we extend our expertise and innovations to all participants to help the competition grow collectively. Adoption has generally been strong.

Part of our role as a league is to present these new opportunities to clubs and provide education and consultancy, which has helped even the smaller clubs with limited internal resources to exploit the value that we are offering. Media partners receive complete dossiers of information regarding our matches before, after and during the match, meaning they can prepare unique match previews, reports or add our real-time data to the match transmission, as we are seeing currently. 

DIQ: What are match days like? I imagine it gets pretty intense!

RZ: That’s right! On game day, cameras throughout each stadium capture everything in high definition – permitting each and every single movement of the ball to be captured and stored. The cameras capture around 300,000 frames per match, with dozens of variables. This creates scores of valuable information that can be analysed by each club’s team of data scientists and used to gain tactical insights that influence decision making.

LaLiga Tech’s data scientists also have the task of visualising and interpreting that data for broadcast audiences on game day. Each match is an opportunity to learn more and more about the game and those learnings can then be used to improve and reimagine how sports are experienced on a wider scale.

DIQ: What was the data technology landscape previously and how was Databricks selected as the solution?

RZ: LaLiga’s technology was piecemeal, managing isolated processes but with no central repository to analyse the information we were creating. We truly believe that data and AI have the power to change the industry for the better. After establishing our business intelligence and analytics teams, we needed a solution that unified all data on a single platform and allowed us to gain insights in real-time, enabling machine learning at scale. The lakehouse platform was a natural choice for us, as it removed much of the complexity and simplified everything into one data lake. We are now able to perform AI, ML and BI on a single platform that the entire team can access quickly and easily. This new ecosystem changes the game for fans and club data scientists, as data collected during games can be viewed in real-time and then used for both in-game analysis and to predict player injuries before they occur. This was unheard of before and will certainly continue to evolve over time in ways that will change everything that we know about data analysis in football and entertainment.

DIQ: Now you have built the data lakehouse, what’s next?

RZ: As mentioned, this is just the beginning for us. What we have achieved so far is just the tip of the iceberg for what could be achieved through data and AI in the sport and entertainment industry. In the future, data will be used more widely to enrich the experience of sports fans, as well as clubs and players. This will also bring benefits to other sports organisations who are currently working out how to execute their own digital transformation.

From LaLiga Tech, we can offer these organisations a way to accelerate this transformation through the solutions that we have been perfecting for so many years, and the expertise that we offer both as a sports competition and a technology provider. There are many sports technologies on the market, but none with the complete and industry-focused approach that we have been able to create.

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