Coming from leagues, fans and regulators, demand for sports data in realtime has led to a proliferation of streaming APIs. Are current data transfer systems fit to support a fast-changing industry?
With the ‘sports data revolution’ now old news, the next wave of data-driven transformations is being driven by realtime. A combination of connected fans (the subject of an Ably/ OnePulse survey into mobile sports consumers), newly opened sports-betting markets (notably the US, predicted to be a $215bn betting industry by 2025), and the rise of ‘continuous’, in-play bet-waging have given rise to an explosion of streaming APIs. What does this mean for data transfer infrastructure in sports?
To illustrate, Ballr is a mobile gaming platform where fans connect, compete and communicate, in realtime, around pre-defined in-game ‘events’ (e.g., a pass, a foul, a change in weather or pitch condition). Engineers must create and maintain systems that transfer data on thousands of ‘micro-moments’ — dynamic updates on play, betting odds, user preferences, and other information. Millions of messages require thousands of data-transfer channels, all running simultaneously, with little certainty around which channel or message will be relevant when, to whom and to how many.
Infrastructure for fast, fickle, realtime-addicted consumers
Infrastructure requirements for realtime streaming APIs come with high-stakes strings attached. For sports betting, where competition is fierce and users stand to lose money, data must be delivered to end-users in under half a second and seamlessly synchronized across users’ multiple devices, or sports fans (nearly 70% of them, to be precise) simply switch apps at the first sign of inconvenience. The technical requirements for meeting these heightened realtime expectations are the subject of detailed research carried out by Ably last year into the connected fan phenomenon. While competition is fierce and consumer expectations high, the benefits of making the most of this opportunity are also significant. Live data streams from sports events by definition attract large audiences. Easy exposure to these APIs means more revenue streams, as partner businesses add to live fan experiences (see Fresh8 example, below).
Supporting a competitively innovative industry
While live sport remains one of the most popular — and lucrative — entertainment channels, TV viewing figures are in decline. A race is afoot to capture the new, mobile-based audience by delivering the best, most novel and most immersive fan experiences possible. What do these look like in practice?
In-platform betting experiences allow bet-wagers to access data streams on demand and set their own terms for bets. Fantasy Football Fix is a platform for social betting experiences. The infrastructure behind this platform is impressive: individual in-game actions are collected, packaged and distributed while being run through dynamic, AI-driven predictive algorithms. They are then distributed back — in real time — to thousands of players. As well as performance, low latency and scalability, it’s also important these data streams form the basis of other innovations. Forerunners in leveraging realtime streams on multiple aspects of a game include Fanduel, which recently partnered with Fresh8 to integrate realtime image- and video-based advertising across its channels.
Traditional data streams — a blockage?
Data is currently streamed through networks that rely on pairwise integrations. Matthew O’Riordan, CEO of Ably Realtime, explains further: “Existing data transfer models require setting up connections each time users want to publish or consume data. This means publishing the same data multiple times to different end users. In sports, this often means data ‘hops’ between upwards of four intermediaries before it reaches exchanges, and multiple servers need to be used across geographies to reduce latency and accommodate growing volumes.” In other words, leveraging realtime sports data APIs for new commercial possibilities requires significant manual integration to enable functioning with other systems. Ably’s API Streamer comes to market as the first full lifecycle realtime API management tool. In sports and elsewhere, its ambition is to serve as a catalyst for industries being transformed by realtime (sports data being one of the most prominent of these).
When it comes to how this works in practice, relevant to the sports industry, information on a pass or a goal must be distributed through multiple custom-built channels. With the API Streamer the infrastructure requirements are the same (i.e. minimal) whether the data is published out to 1 or to 100,000 end-user devices. This results in significant cost-savings, as well as savings in engineering effort. Data owners have more time and engineering capacity for turning data streams into revenue streams, safe in the knowledge their realtime systems will scale. The in-built interoperability of the Ably platform allows developers to access data streams from a single place — data is more usable for third-parties and has much further reach.
Realtime tech and live official scores
Tennis Australia (also powered by Ably) is one of the first sports bodies to set a data performance target to consistently broadcast messages to 1.2 million users within 500ms for the 95th percentile of users. According to Tennis Australia, “The Australian Open’s worldwide audience engage with the event via every digital medium and format imaginable, with millions of users receiving billions of realtime messages each second. Reliable realtime infrastructure ensures Tennis Australia remains the primary source for live scores, streaming videos, profile information, schedules and commentary.” IMG, to use another example, has developed a real-time, shot-by-shot data collection system installed at all European Tour events, and powers a popular live scoreboard. Intel True View, used by Premier Leagues, the NFL and the NBA, allows for virtual game experiences similar to being on-pitch. However, the importance of official data goes beyond this.
While the ‘Big Four’ sports data providers (Sportradar, Genius Sports, Perform Group and Scientific Games’ Don Best Sports) frequently sign multi-million dollar contracts with superleagues, debates are ongoing as to whether the availability of scores in realtime could have had an adverse affect on sport integrity. In a widely-publicised review the Tennis Integrity Unit linked the new availability of live scores at lower tiers of the game with hikes in betting-related corruption. The review’s authors put increased match-fixing instances down to live official scores becoming available at lower-tier levels of the game, where salaries are lower and participants more pliable.
One solution demands sports data providers work with regulators and anti-corruption campaigners to create centralized systems where official data is fast, reliable and robust enough to render illegal or offshore data providers redundant. According to Sportradar, “due to our real-time processing we have also all but closed the time lag between event occurrence and event recording that allows courtsiders to flourish”. Additionally, Sportradar’s Integrity Unit employs advanced algorithms to detect suspicious activity in how data is used.
Is sports ready for a realtime data rethink?
According to Matthew O’Riordon sports data transfer systems are in line for a technical rethink if they are to support the combined demands of connected fans, competitive UX landscapes and the need for watertight official scores. Just as API management tools made it easy for companies to exchange and share data outside their organizations, realtime API Management tools make multiple streaming connections much easier to manage and aggregate. According to him: “The future for sports data is to avoid the intermediaries, avoid congestion, and look at licensing models that allow data to be sent directly from the source to the end-user (a business or consumer) without affecting existing commercial agreements. What’s needed are closed systems guaranteeing capacity and availability while provide the shortest possible transfer route.”
To talk about the tech, use cases and scope for realtime API management tools — in sports and elsewhere — get in touch.