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Obsessed With Stats: Is World Cup’s Player-Tracking Tech the Future of Sports?

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Michael Bradley of the United States challenges Toni Kroos of Germany during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil group G match between the United States and Germany at Arena Pernambuco on June 26, 2014 in Recife, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Michael Bradley of the United States challenges Toni Kroos of Germany during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil group G match between the United States and Germany at Arena Pernambuco on June 26, 2014 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

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LANHAM, Md. (WNEW) — American sports fans have an ever-growing obsession with statistics. Just look at the sabermetrics exemplified by the movie Moneyball, or the precise planning that goes into fantasy league rosters.

Some believe it’s time for the math geeks of the world to rejoice, as it seems mathematics and professional sports are walking hand-in-hand toward the future.

Steve Byrd, CEO of STATS LLC, says this year’s FIFA World Cup is the first that has employed his company’s tracking system, which can record how far and how fast each player runs, as well as where on the field they are spending most of their time.

There are no sensors, chips or anything of that nature involved.

“It’s completely optical, all done from the computer-vision cameras that identify the objects, use things like color and optical character recognition to read the numbers on the jerseys,” Byrd says.

While the underlying algorithms don’t know what (or rather, who) they are tracking, an additional layer of software written by the company identifies the individual players.

The technology is called SportVU, and STATS acquired an Israeli company by the same name back in 2009.

“The engineers who built it are optical engineers, and they were trained in doing missile tracking and target acquisition technology,” Byrd says.

Some of data SportVU collects is on FIFA’s website for interested fans to browse at their leisure. There, for example, you can see that U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley ran nearly 34 miles during the team’s four matches.

As the current “top runner” in the World Cup, Bradley is featured prominently on the stats page. But do a little digging and you can also see that even U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard ran about 11.5 miles over the course of those same four matches.

Another amazing tidbit — Costa Rican defender Junior Diaz reached a max speed of about 21 miles per hour at some point during his team’s games against Uruguay, Italy, England and Greece, making him the Cup’s fastest player (so far).

Obviously, this information can also be used by the teams to analyze player skill and strategy.

Byrd says the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has already used SportVU for several years. All 30 NBA teams started using the technology during the 2013-2014 season.

STATS believes this is only the beginning.

The company will most likely continue to grow rapidly, just as it has for the past few years, because of the fans’ rabid desire “to understand and analyze and predict,” Byrd says.

“We think we have just scratched the surface because we’re just now starting to, particularly with the NBA… understand what’s relevant and what’s interesting and, you know, measure things like rebounds versus rebound opportunities. How many times were you close enough to get a rebound versus the ones you actually got? And how many times did you make the pass that lead to the score and how efficient is a team when their point guard dribbles fewer than 20 times or holds the ball for fewer than eight seconds? All those sorts of things, we don’t even really know what all we’re going to learn out of it yet.”

And that’s just basketball. STATS is also looking to tackle other sports — like hockey, baseball and even golf.

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