Moneyball hits the NFL via a San Francisco 49ers app

The football team, which plays its first game in its new stadium Sunday, worked with SAP to improve its scouting through the use of data analytics.

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The San Francisco 49ers hold a public practice Friday ahead of the first game in their new stadium on Sunday. Shara Tibken/CNET

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Silicon Valley didn't just build the new San Francisco 49ers stadium. It also helped build the football team's roster.

The 49ers team, which will play the first game in its new stadium in the heart of Silicon Valley on Sunday, relied on a data-analytics app to help with scouting for the 2014 to 2015 season -- and the team believes the technology could help it go all the way to the Super Bowl.

The 49ers worked with enterprise software giant SAP to create an HTML 5-based iOS app that can quickly analyze about 100 variables, including stats for current team members and potential recruits. The technology aggregates information the 49ers' own scouts gathered, data provided by the NFL, and information from scouting services and other third parties to help the team make better hiring decisions.

Inside the 49ers' new tech-rich stadium

"Too much of our time, too much energy, too much of our manpower was spent collecting data manually," Ethan Waugh, head of scouting for the 49ers, said during a press event Friday at the new stadium here. "And we have a number of scouts that work remotely...[and] data that's changing constantly."

Scouts not looking at the most recent data "really caused some problems in the past," Waugh added. "We need to improve our process."

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The effort by the 49ers and SAP is only the latest technology partnership in the sports industry. Like many businesses, sports teams are trying to find ways to more efficiently recruit employees (in this case athletes), as well as figure out how much to pay them and when to play them. Teams also are working with technology companies on wearables and sensors on equipment to measure players' vital signs and other characteristics during training and games.

Using analytics in sports has worked well before. The most famous example is Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's use of data analysis to choose players for his baseball team. The A's couldn't compete with the high salaries offered by rivals such as the New York Yankees so they instead crunched data to find players with high on-base percentages and other factors. Beane's story was turned into a 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt, called "Moneyball."

More recently, SAP helped the German national soccer team analyze player performance to make game-time decisions during the World Cup. The program, called SAP Match Insights, allowed the German team to improve its passing speed and other game elements. Germany won the World Cup title in mid-July by beating Argentina 1-0.

The 49ers, along with SAP engineers in Palo Alto, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass., started building the app in September 2012, the beginning of the season for the 49ers' most recent Super Bowl run. The team ended up losing to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31 in the February 2013 match.

The initial year the team used the app, it operated the program in parallel with its normal scouting techniques to evaluate how well it worked. The 2014 draft was the first time the 49ers used SAP's scouting system from start to finish.

"We feel pretty good about the draft," Waugh said. "We'll know a lot more in four or five years, but it was definitely a welcome change from the processes we've had in the past."

Of course, the technology can't completely replace the human element of scouting. The team also takes into account the attitude of the players and how well they'll get along with the coaches and their would-be teammates. The 49ers scouts consider sources such as social-media profiles to make their decisions.

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SAP's Scouting app helps teams like the San Francisco 49ers evaluate potential recruits. SAP

It's up to the players on the field to determine the outcome for the 49ers' season, but the analytics are "a very important piece," Waugh said. "Any edge that we can get in any aspect is important."

SAP offers the technology to other teams, but it tweaks its program based on each organization's requirements. Currently, the Washington Redskins are also using SAP's scouting analytics technology. Becher said SAP has signed up other teams as customers, but he declined to provide specifics.

"It's not traditional software where you can say 'here's your scouting app,'" SAP Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Becher said. "If everyone was using the exact same [system] for scouting, there'd be no advantage."

 

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