Canadian Olympic Committee amplifies analytics in deal with data company

By The Canadian Press
January 18, 2017 - 8:30am

The Canadian Olympic Committee is teaming with a big data company to ramp up analytics for athletes.

The COC has announced an eight-year, cash-and-services sponsorship deal with SAS, an analytics software company whose clients include banks, hotels, universities and casinos.

The company's sports division has worked with the Los Angeles Kings, Orlando Magic and New York Mets as well as Major League Soccer.

The pro teams often want data on season-ticket holder retention and fan experience enhancement. Athlete performance will be SAS's primary work for the COC. 

"Our initial focus will be on what we call player analytics," SAS president Cameron Dow told The Canadian Press from Toronto. "It's a lot more than a marketing partnership. It was more around how could we actually work with the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Olympic team to actually make a difference and drive results?"

Canada's Olympic team used advanced data analysis for the first time in last year's Summer Olympics in Rio.

SAS is expanding on previous analytics work done by the Canadian Tire's credit-risk and consumer behaviour assessors for Own The Podium. Canadian Tire is a sponsor of Canada's Olympic team.

A group of the company's financial analysts concentrated on swimming, rowing, cycling, and track and field in projecting the times it would take to stand on the podium in Rio in those sports.

"The work that's going on is fine, but how do we really ramp up the horsepower?" COC chief executive officer Chris Overholt said. "The deal that we've done with SAS will layer into the work that the folks at Canadian Tire have already done.

"When you get started with an analytics company like SAS, one of the first things they ask you is 'What kind of data points do you have that we can start to build from?' The great news here is the work that's been done already will provide seminal data for the work we're about to undertake with SAS."

Canada won 22 medals in Rio — four gold, three silver and 15 bronze — to match its best performance at a non-boycotted Summer Games.

The Canadian Tire group — who went 8-for-12 in their medal predictions for Rio — have built projection models for the 2018 Winter Games in the sports of luge, figure skating, freestyle skiing, speedskating, bobsleigh and skeleton.

The head of Own The Podium says those models will be in use next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"We're not dismantling the work we're doing with Canadian Tire," OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said. "The SAS partnership will build on that and expand it to other sports that we're not currently involved with.

"The new announcement doesn't replace what we're doing with Canadian Tire. It just complements it and builds on it."

Analytics exploded into sport after the 2003 Michael Lewis book "Moneyball" chronicling the Oakland Athletics approach to winning games using historical statistics to drive decision making.

The rationale is large swaths of numbers can be crunched to determine trends and predict outcomes.

"I would say it's really been the last five or six years that we've seen organizations really get aggressive around it," Dow said.

"Not just 'I'll hire a person to do some analytics stuff' but actually making some significant investments and partnering with organizations like SAS."

SAS will continue the work already being done tracking which athletes are demonstrating podium potential early in their careers, Dow said.

Via their operational analytics, SAS can help streamline both Olympic Games preparation and sport federations' day-to-day administration and paperwork, Overholt said.

"This is the first (corporate) deal that we've done in my time here that is expressly for the sport system," Overholt said. "We've got some of the brightest minds around the table to help us figure out how to produce more medals for this country and that's exciting."

No financial terms of the deal were released.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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