Jerry Rice: Big Data Is Changing the NFL Fan Experience & Players – Rise of Fantasy Football

By James Foug and Alec Furrier

As the NFL season kicks off, millions of football fans are preparing for the start of the 2013 season. Every year, more and more people are signing up for fantasy sports and as fantasy is growing, so is data collection. This data collection has become complex on the backend to provide a simpler, changed sports experience for the consumer.  It’s also changing the game for the players and overall fan experience.  This is the future of sports.

 “If I had all the data and all of that stuff back when I played football, the 1500 catches that I had, over 20,000 yards , 208 touchdowns, I think I probably would have just doubled everything.” – Jerry Rice, NFL Hall of Famer.

To elaborate on the data behind fantasy football, Intel hosted an event called “Inside the Huddle” to promote new software products and to host a hour long discussion on real time data intelligence led by Intel’s Boyd Davis. Joining Intel’s Datacenter Software head Davis was Kevin Meers, co-president of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, John Pollard, general manager of the Sports Solutions Group at STATS, Josh Zerkle from Bleacher Report and hall of fame wide receiver Jerry Rice.

Highlighted by the panel was the famous record setting Jerry Rice, who has teamed up with Intel. Rice mainly talked about the new data and how that would have been different for him back when he played and if he had access to todays data he might have been a different player. He constantly referenced the “old school” and “new school” thought of the NFL referring to how the game and technology has changed significantly since his playing days. According to Dameon Poeter of pcmag.com, Rice stated “The technology that is available to players and fans today is absolutely mind-blowing. During my time on the field as well as my work as an analyst, I’ve seen firsthand the impact that technology has had on the sports fan, the athlete, and the game,” Rice said. “I can only imagine what it would have been like to play with these resources at my fingertips and am proud to be working with Intel, a brand whose innovative culture has enabled many of these developments to take place.”

Leading the discussion was Boyd, who presented the members with discussion questions about the emergence of data and statistics collection that has propelled football to a new elite. Pollard talked about how he has worked with many NFL teams, giving them access to data and statistics that teams have used to strategize and game plan as well as using the information for selecting players out of college in the NFL draft. Pollard stated that his company records an average 92 data points per play in the NFL, and has done so for every play in every game for the past 30 years. Data is collected from all parts of the field during the play and also from all 22 players on the field whether they are involved in the play or not. Data from STATS can be used to rate players who do not show up on the stat sheet often such as offensive lineman and also to predict future statistics and results. This data is being used as a tool by most NFL teams to help create a better team overall.

Sitting next to Pollard was Kevin Meers, a current Harvard student and co-president of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. At age 22, Meers and his student peers have created a data collection where they have access to more in depth statistics than most likely all head coaches in the NFL. Also in the discussion was Josh Zerkle from bleacher report who like the others was also an expert in the field of data collection. Zerkle along with the other members chatted about how new data is in the process of improving the preciseness of fantasy football as well as real football. Currently fantasy football is based mainly around the skill positions of quarterback, running backs, wide receiver, tight end, kicker and lightly around defensive players and defensive teams. Discussed was the possibility of expanding scoring categories in fantasy football due to the newly data discoveries. For example, currently for defensive players, points are given for tackles, sacks, interceptions, fumbles forced, fumbles recovered and passes defended in the air. However, with only a few scoring categories, many players like defensive lineman who are extremely valuable in real football are almost worthless in fantasy football. For example, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith is a highly regarded defensive tackle and has been a pro-bowler the last four seasons and is arguably the best defensive tackle in the game anchoring the 49ers top ranked rush defense. However, in fantasy football last season Smith average only 2.6 fantasy points per week and this year he has only been selected in 29% of fantasy leagues.

It was agreed during the panel that in the short term, fantasy football can elevate even more into a more accurate representation of a players real football value with more statistical categories and measurements. For example, in the future defensive players will be added to the fantasy “point” equation using complicated data points and equations. In the long run, we may even see the inclusion of offensive line. Imagine a fantasy draft in 5 years: “Hey who do you think is going to get picked second, JJ Watt or Aldon Smith?” All positions will be equally included in fantasy football sometime down the road.

Pollard mentioned the delicacy of tracking certain positions. He stated that STATS was working on ways to record an offensive lineman’s position during every play. How far back they were forced, how far left, how far right, how far did they push their opponent, etc. These ways of creating new real time data can lead us to a more complex way of tracking each player in the NFL. This complexity will give the average fantasy football player a more immersive experience with all positions involved in their fantasy team.

In a discussion panel with these five men, it became apparent that the game of football is growing in terms of access to immediate data and information exploring game situations and teams performance in every aspect of the game. The way we track data in the NFL is becoming more than just rushing yards and passing yards, and we will see a change in the way a player is valued by the fantasy system in the near future.

{Editors note:  James Foug (Cal Poly) and Alec Furrier (UCSB) are college bound interns for SiliconANGLE studying the data science behind sports reporting and entertainment}

About John Furrier

John Furrier is founder, co-CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of SiliconANGLE, a new media company covering the intersection of computer science and social science. Furrier is also the co-founder and CEO of CrowdChat a social media platform for large-scale group conversations over hashtags. In addition to SiliconANGLE John runs Broadband Developments a private incubator and investment firm for creating new startups. Furrier lives in Palo Alto, California with his wife and four children.