Jul 27 2020

How Data Analytics Is Helping Universities Restart Sports

As schools across the nation deliberate over restarting collegiate sports in the fall, here’s a look at how data-driven approaches can keep student-athletes safe on campus — and revolutionize the game.

To restart or not restart? That is the question. Ever since student-athletes started returning to practice in June, there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases at training facilities across the country. But why are some college sports teams experiencing outbreaks and not others?

Some universities are attributing their success to data-driven reopening strategies that are not only keeping student-athletes safe on campus, but also improving their performance.

How Some Universities Keep Student-Athletes Safe

Oregon State University is one example of a university that has managed to bring student-athletes back to campus for practice this summer without a resulting outbreak.

In addition to following the NCAA’s official guidelines on how to safely restart college sports, schools including OSU are using data to not only optimize athletic programs but also to create COVID-19 screening tools that can protect student-athletes as campuses reopen.

OSU’s IT department recently used Microsoft’s PowerAppsSharePointOffice 365, and Power BI to develop an application that is assisting with COVID-19 screening and contact tracing for OSU’s student-athletes.

The screening consists of daily self-assessments in which student-athletes complete a comprehensive questionnaire that asks if they experienced any COVID-19 symptoms in the past 24 hours. Athletes can fill out the questionnaire from their phones or computers.

After submitting the survey, athletes will receive an instant automated email with a QR code that confirms whether they can report to campus for additional screening. As athletes arrive on campus, they show the QR code linked with their survey results to gain access to facilities. An administrator can also easily scan the QR code with an iPhone camera.

The data that the Power BI dashboard generates can notify universities and colleges of outbreaks as soon as one occurs. It can also support contact tracing.

Not surprisingly, OSU’s contactless solution has gained traction from schools across the nation. “We have been working with several universities and state entities across the U.S. to help them understand the application and utilize it,” says Tim De Quilettes, the Director of Information Technology at OSU.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn about these emerging technologies for tracking COVID-19 in higher ed.

UNF Moves Forward with Plans to Restart Sports

Meanwhile, the University of North Florida is developing a similar daily health screening app that will help student-athletes stay safe when they return to campus in early August.

The smartphone app will be used not only by student-athletes but all members of the UNF campus community. After users answer a series of screening questions, the app will determine which UNF students, faculty members, staff, vendors and visitors are cleared to come on campus.

The survey will include questions about body temperature, risk factors and recent travel locations. The screening will assess not only COVID-19 symptoms but also the user’s health risks, as well as their likelihood of contracting an infection.

For those who are not cleared, the app will provide detailed instructions on how long to self-quarantine and when to seek medical advice.

Since most student-athletes are unable to practice proper social distancing during training and games, UNF is mandating that all student-athletes, coaches and training staff take COVID-19 tests before they arrive on campus.

Aware of the costs and difficulty of acquiring tests, UNF has stated it will help with access and resources for testing.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how data analytics will help campuses reopen safely.

How Data Analytics is Revolutionizing Sports

The infrastructure and collaboration necessary to use data analytics solutions like OSU’s has its roots in sport’s competitive nature. There are existing, cutting-edge programs that can improve not just an athlete’s performance but their overall collegiate experience.

Moneyball isn’t just baseball anymore. Today, sabermetrics — the analytics approach made famous in the book Moneyball — has trickled outside the confines of Major League Baseball stadiums and all the way into collegiate sports.

Sure, college teams still want elite players and brilliant coaches — and Michigan State University has both. But the MSU Spartans also have what some consider a secret weapon: staffers adept at using data analytics to help their team gain a competitive edge.

“What we’re really trying to do is optimize the student-athlete experience,” explains Kevin Pauga, the university’s assistant athletic director for administration. Pauga previously served as a data analyst for the Big Ten Conference and as MSU’s director of men’s basketball operations. He and his colleagues have a long history of applying analytics to everything from team logistics to game video, which they continue to this day.

Pauga, for example, has built data models to generate game schedules that not only maximize television ratings but also minimize missed class time. He has staff members who tag game clips with metadata, which helps with scouting and player performance.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to put the ball in the basket and to stop the other team from putting the ball in the basket,” Pauga notes. “So, if I can tell you that this particular player goes over his left shoulder to the post 82.7 percent of the time, and over his right shoulder 17.3 percent of the time, those details can be useful from a coaching standpoint.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to prepare for campus readiness while cutting costs.

How to Use Different Data for Different Sporting Needs

For years, professional teams have embraced data analytics to guide decisions in management, athletic training and performance.

Here are some notable universities that are doing the same:

  • Boston University, which has used wearable devices and cloud-based analytics to assess player biometrics in lacrosse and field hockey
  • The University of Rochester, where the women’s basketball team has used a data analytics program to evaluate potential recruits while complying with conference regulations
  • The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which launched its sports analytics department in 2015

“The ultimate goal for sports is to win games, develop players and provide an unforgettable experience for the coaches, players and fans,” says Arun Ulagaratchagan, corporate vice president for Microsoft Power BI, the company’s business intelligence platform. Professional teams that lack dedicated IT resources, such as business intelligence developers and data scientists, often turn to Microsoft’s Power BI to “ingest, transform and visualize” the reams of data they increasingly have at their disposal, Ulagaratchagan explains. A few universities have leveraged the platform as well, he says, but they’re the early adopters pushing the leading edge.

Whether it’s keeping student-athletes, coaches and training staff safe during a pandemic or optimizing teams’ training and performance, data analytics is helping to make the impossible possible for college sports.

Nobi_Prizue/Getty Images (data visualization); Dmytro Aksonov/Getty Images (soccer player)