Opinion: The Truth About Player Tracking and Online Sports Betting

Bets based on what is being brought to consumers by advances in player tracking are less controversial than the critics may suggest.

Nov 14, 2022 • 11:12 ET • 5 min read
Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers NBA
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

In the market share battle currently being waged across the soon-to-be 36 states with retail and online sports betting sites, the desire for more product is perhaps the one constant.

In this context, it is no surprise to read in a recent press release announcing an enhanced deal for National Basketball Association data between supplier Sportradar and sportsbook FanDuel that the pair are set to collaborate on new offerings, including using player-tracking data to create props and add to parlay offerings.

It is understood these products will be non-exclusive and other bookmakers are sure to follow in this direction. 

Still, it is surprising to see how some in the sports and sports-betting media have picked up on this story. Far from treating the news as an added benefit to sports fans and bettors alike, some coverage suggests that player tracking could lead to a conspiracy to deny bettors an even chance of winning.

Critics rely on fears that the information being tracked won’t be available to everyone. Which, to put it kindly, is bunk

It’s here already

For starters, the critics appear to have ignored the extent to which player tracking is already part of the sports-consumer experience. 

While the Sportradar/FanDuel deal is talking specifically about the NBA, we only have to look at what is being offered in terms of baseball coverage to see how much tracking data is already integrated into the viewing experience.

For instance, two metrics commonly referred to in MLB coverage are the launch angle for any hit and the launch velocity — that is, how the ball is coming off the bat and at what speed. Obviously, such data helps when it comes to covering home runs, helping the media explain exactly how far and how high any given homer traveled.

In fact, it is the media that provides one of the current use cases for player tracking data, with the other being coaching and analytics. Think of that one as a kind of technology-enabled Moneyball, providing further insight into how any given player is performing.

From the standpoint of TV coverage, player tracking is being used, according to one source, as a “storytelling” tool, explaining what is happening on the field of play in a more detailed way and delivering more insight for the millions watching.

And contrary to the barely masked ignorance displayed on this issue elsewhere, the key to this coverage is that it is provided by cameras.

Myth-busting

A key misconception about player tracking is that it is biometric data, meaning data captured by sensors monitoring such metrics as heart rate and blood pressure. 

But this isn’t what is driving the player tracking we are seeing now, or the potential bet types that will be derived from it. 

When understood in this context, it is possible to view the type of bets that might be derived from current player tracking technology as being part of the evolution of in-play wagering.

In a world where new bet types are being explored — think of micro-betting as one example — then it is obvious that this data has been seized upon as a way to originate them.

Crucially, with new information being put in front of the sports audience, which encourages them to form an opinion, then the follow-up is that they might want to make a bet based on that new information.

And here is another important point: the information being spoken about when it comes to player tracking is already widely available to the sporting public. Whether it is MLB coverage, the NBA, or the NFL, where it has been running for a while with a dedicated channel featuring exactly this type of analytics, as provided by Genius Sports, we are already in a world where this type of information is freely available.

Away from U.S. sports, Genius also recently said it would be introducing player-tracking visuals from its Second Spectrum unit to English Premier League football. The technology behind that is what is called sub-skeletal tracking, which the company said would benefit fans, media, and broadcasts, as well as teams and coaches. 

It is clear at this point that player tracking is not some kind of stitch-up on the part of suppliers and operators, nor does it provide any further degree of sports-integrity risk. As with all other forms of legal sports betting, any bet types that might originate from the player-tracking data will be monitored by the various systems deployed. 

In fact, given that player tracking enables a greater level of analytics around aspects of the sports in question, it is arguably less prone to potential integrity issues. After all, as with the application of player tracking on the coaching side, more insight provides even greater scrutiny of player performances.

Light and dark

As one industry insider suggested, we are still some way off actually seeing what bet types come about from the technology now available. “This is a process of collaboration,” they suggested.

“The whole ecosystem is yet to be worked through. Whatever emerges has to work for all stakeholders, whether that is the leagues, the player associations, the state regulators as much as the operators and suppliers.”

This is a very different picture to that painted by the critics who are suggesting that there is something nefarious about this kind of data not having been made available to bookmakers before. And it hasn’t. Because it’s new.

Arguably, taking this negative viewpoint on player tracking also misses the bigger story: this is the much-spoken-about convergence of sports, media, and sports betting in action.

Grand ideas about what might emerge from various combinations of giants on all sides are being played out here in the form of new bet types driven by organic demand from consumers.

To be clear, there isn’t — as one outlet put it — a “potential darker side” to player tracking. Surely the U.S. sports betting market has evolved enough not to succumb to such “cry wolf” tactics when all such warnings can cite is some professional gambler off Twitter and an acknowledged critic of there being any kind of relationship between sports, sports data companies, and sports-betting operators.

Unholy marriage is how it was described. In what sense? Please.

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