Sports betting and the shadowy world of game data

As US states look to finally legalise sports betting after the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban, firms are catching on to the value of the huge amounts of data each game can generate.

Who scored what, where, when, and how provides the lifeblood of in-sports betting in a mature market like the UK, where operators monetise as much of the game as possible. Punters expect to be able to bet not only on the end-score of a football match, but also the details on the minute of the first goal, who setup the scorer, and where the ball landed in the net.

It is the specificity of these bets that mean firms can offer eye-catching odds to players, which can excite even the most casual of bettors. Odds like 50/1 would only previously have been available for those sufficiently engaged to play accumulators or on the real underdogs at the racetrack on sites like Betpoint, but not sports betting operator might make similar offers for Harry Kane to score the first goal of the Sweden game in the first 15 minutes. And if firms can convince casual players to stake their money at long odds, there is significant money to be made – and every second counts.

In yesterday’s frontpage story in the NY Times, reporters James Glanz and Agustin Armendariz explained how a few seconds is the difference between sports data being lucrative and valueless. Television streams tend to be on a 5-10 second delay, and so for the data to matter operators need their data feeds to stay ahead of the game.

Stadiums and sports leagues provide their own official data feeds, but when you are trying to beat your competitors, a black market has arisen with unofficial data scouts arriving at stadiums and tapping the data quickly into the phones through dedicated apps. Such data thieves are ejected from stadiums when spotted by officials, but as with any monopoly the shadowy alternative is lucrative and the game of cat and mouse continues.

In the US, as sports betting has to-date been an illegal activity, the firms that have previously worked in the shadows to provide data points on sporting events under the radar are now the firms with the structures best placed to become the official stats providers, with possible monopoly deals in the pipeline. If such monopolies of data are created, the question remains – will they do more harm than good to the betting world? And if the underworld has worked so well for so long, will bookies actually choose to use the official data and its associated sky-high fees over their own cheaper and already established shadow sources?

Photograph by MarkusWeber93