Here’s more evidence that sports is a goldmine for machine learning

If you really like sports and you’re really skilled at data analysis or machine learning, you might want to make that your profession.

On Thursday, private equity firm Vista announced it has acquired a natural-language processing startup called Automated Insights and will make it a subsidiary of STATS, a sports data company that Vista also owns. It’s just the latest example of how much money there is to be made when you combine sports, data and algorithms.

The most-popular story about Automated Insights is that its machine-learning algorithms are behind the Associated Press’s remarkably successful automated corporate-earnings stories, but there’s much more to the business than that. The company claims its algorithms have a place in all sorts of areas where users might want to interact with information in natural language — fitness apps, health care, business intelligence and, of course, sports.

In fact, someone from Automated Insights recently told me that fantasy sports is a potential cash cow for the company. Because its algorithms can analyze data and the outcomes of individual matchups, it can deliver everything from in-game trash-talk to post-game summaries. The better the algorithms are at mimicking natural language (i.e., not just regurgitating stats with some static nouns and verbs around them), the more engaging the user experience — and the more money the fantasy sports platform, and Automated Insights as a partner, make. Automated Insights already provides some of this experience for Yahoo Sports.

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So it’s not surprising that STATS would acquire Automated Insights. STATS provides a lot of data products to broadcasters and and folks selling mobile and web applications, ranging from analysis to graphics to its SportVU player-tracking system. At our Structure Data conference next month in New York, STATS Executive Vice President of Pro Analytics Bill Squadron will be on stage along with ESPN’s vice president of data platforms, Krish Dasgupta, to discuss how the two companies are working together the sate an ever-growing sports-fan thirst for data. (We’ll also have experts in machine learning and deep learning from places such as Facebook, Yahoo and Spotify discussing the state of the are in building machines that understand language, images and even music.)

And Automated Insights isn’t even STATS’s first acquisition this week. On Tuesday, the company announced it had acquired The Sports Network, a sports news and data provider. In September, STATS acquired Bloomberg Sports.

More broadly, though, the intersection of sports and data is becoming a big space with the potential to be huge. Every year around this time, people in the United States start going crazy over the NCAA collegiate men’s basketball tournament (aka March Madness) and spend billions of dollars betting on it in office pools and at sports books. And every year for the past several, we have been seeing more and more predictive models and other tools for helping people predict who’ll win and lose each game.

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Statistician superstar Nate Silver might be best known for his ability to predict elections, but he has been applying his trade to sports including baseball and the NCAA tournament for years, too. It’s no wonder ESPN bought him and his FiveThirtyEight blog and turned it into a full-on news outlet that includes a heavy emphasis on sports data.

The National Football League might present the biggest opportunity to cash in on sports data. Aside from the ability to predict games and player performance (gambling on the NFL — including fantasy football — is a huge business), we now see individuals making their livings with football-analysis blogs that turn into consulting gigs. There’s a growing movement to tackle the challenge of predicting play calling by applying machine learning algorithms to in-game data.

Even media companies are getting into the act. The New York Times dedicates resources to analyzing every fourth down in every NFL game and telling the world whether the coach should have punted, kicked a field goal or gone for it. In 2013, Yahoo bought a startup called SkyPhrase (although it folded the personnel into Yahoo Labs) that developed a way to deliver statistics in response to natural language queries. The NFL was one of its first test cases.

A breakdown of what happens on fourth down.

A breakdown of what happens on fourth down.

Injuries are also a big deal, and there is no shortage of thought, or financial investment, into new ways of analyzing measuring what’s happening with players’ bodies so teams can better diagnose and prevent injuries. Sensors and cameras located near the field or even on players’ uniforms, combined with new data analysis methods, provide a great opportunity for unlocking some real insights into player safety.

All of this probably only skims the surface of what’s being done with sports data today and what companies, teams and researchers are working for tomorrow. So while analyzing sports data might not save the world, it might make you rich. If you’re into that sort of thing.

ESPN’s flagship iOS news app now works on both iPhone and iPad

ESPN pushed a big update to its flagship news app for iOS on Thursday. Now simply called ESPN — ditching the “Sportscenter” appellation — the app sports a new look, WatchESPN and ESPN Radio integration, and importantly for iPad-toting sports fans, it is a universal app that works on both phones and tablets running iOS.

It’s not that you couldn’t get scores from ESPN on an iPad before — the “Worldwide Leader” had a confusingly named and poorly-reviewed iPad app called ESPN ScoreCenter XL. But the company is following a new digital strategy, announced last fall, in which it is making cuts to its lineup of apps. Previously, the company had 45 different apps for various sports niches, including separate apps focusing on fantasy leagues, radio, and individual sports like soccer. Now, the game plan is to work on fewer, more individually personalized apps.

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The design language in the new iOS app is a preview of what ESPN’s new website will look like when it re-launches on April 1st. The new design emphasizes performance and speed, and is divided into three main sections: A feed for scores, a feed for news, and a new section called Now that combines social media, quick commentary, and ESPN photos and videos. The iPad version of the app sticks your favorite team logos on the bottom right hand corner of the screen for easy access. Of course, the app will still push alert notifications for scores and game starting times.

You can listen to ESPN Radio in the app, but internal WatchESPN links for live sports or highlights will send you to that service’s dedicated app, although an ESPN executive told Gigaom’s Janko Roettgers that eventually you’ll be able to play WatchESPN content in the main ESPN app.

The new ESPN app is available from the iTunes App Store. Unfortunately, fans using Android devices will have to wait “a few months” for a similar update.

 

All you need to know about Dish’s new Sling TV service

Dish’s Sling TV online streaming service, which the company plans to launch in the coming weeks, made waves at CES earlier this month, but a few questions were left unanswered. Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch took to Reddit this week to answer some of them in the form of an AMA-style crowdsourced interview.

Here are some of the highlights of the AMA, as well as other previously announced details that potential Sling TV customers may be interested in:

  • Base package content: For $20, Sling TV will get you access to live feeds from ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family and CNN.
  • Kids’ package content: An optional $5 kids’ package gets you access to live feeds from Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV and Duck TV.
  • News package content: Sling TV’s optional $5 news and information package includes access to live feeds from HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg TV.
  • Sports package content: There will eventually be a sports add-on package as well, but details are still scarce. Said Lynch: “We’re not ready to announce specific channels for the ‘Sports Extra’ add-on pack, but you can expect to see more great channels from ESPN, as well as other popular sports networks.”
  • WatchESPN: Access to WatchESPN is included, said Lynch. But the devil is in the details: Sling TV base package subscribers only have access to ESPN1, ESPN2 and ESPN3 via WatchESPN, according to an ESPN spokesperson.
  • Number of devices: “You can have Sling TV on as many devices as you want, however at launch, Sling TV will be a single-stream service,” said Lynch.
  • Resolution and bandwidth: Sling TV will be available in 720p and 1080p, and users will be able to tweak their streaming settings: “Through settings, we give you tools to limit the bandwidth for your streaming if you’re worried about your data cap,” Lynch said.
  • Speaking of bandwidth caps: Sling TV’s CEO seems to be aware of last-mile issues, especially since he’s competing with ISPs and their TV services. “We do have concerns about net-neutrality and the effect the proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger could have on the broadband market,” he said.
  • Surround sound: Sling TV supports Dolby surround sound where available. “We support DD 5.1 and it will be available on most channels and most VOD content,” Lynch told Reddit readers.
  • 4K: Won’t be available at launch, in part because TV networks aren’t quite ready. “No live channels are offering 4K content yet,” he said.
  • Device availability: Sling TV will be available on Android TV, Fire TV, Roku, Xbox One, iOS, Android and desktops. The iOS app will support Airplay. There won’t be any Chromecast support at launch, but it’s coming: Lynch said, “We plan to launch on many more devices throughout the year, and Chromecast is on our list!” He was notably less enthusiastic about bringing Sling TV to the Playstation, saying: “Not at launch but we’re always open to new device partnerships.” That might be because Sony is about to launch its own TV service on the Playstation.
  • How to get access: Sling TV will officially launch in the coming weeks, but Lynch shared a trick for everyone who wants first dibs: “Just go to Sling.com to get your invite. We’re rolling these out later this month before the general public.”

WatchESPN goes down during the Rose Bowl

WatchESPN, a service that allows cable subscribers to stream live sporting events on devices like Apple TV, Roku, Xbox, and iPhone and iPad, has been serving error messages instead of streaming live video on Thursday. The outage happened during the Rose Bowl, one of the most anticipated college football games of the year and the first of three college football playoff games streaming on WatchESPN.

Upset Oregon and Florida State fans aired their displeasure on Twitter.

Timothy Burke at Deadspin speculates that the issue has something to do with ESPN’s playlist, and that it’s not a content delivery network problem. This incident isn’t the first time WatchESPN has gone down under high strain.

[company]ESPN[/company] is aware of the issue and says it’s been “largely resolved on all platforms.” I can watch the stream in a browser, although I’m still having trouble connecting on Apple TV.

One thing is clear: If your team ends up making the championship, and you actually want to watch it, you might want to find a friend with cable.

ESPN is shutting down its public API

Sportscaster ESPN (S DIS) is getting ready to shut down its public API. ESPN’s API team announced this week that it won’t be issuing any new API keys going forward, and that all previously issued API keys are going to be revoked in early December. The move will help the company to “better align engineering resources with the growing demand to develop core ESPN products,” the team said in a blog post. ESPN isn’t the only media company that recently decided to pull the plug on a public API: Netflix (S NFLX) announced two months ago that it will shutter its public API in November.