AFL changes the game with release of GPS data

Jack Newnes of the Saints puts a GPS unit in for Jarryn Geary during a training session in May this year. 

By LAURENCE ROSEN

Detailed performance data on AFL players is being widely released to the public for the first time, collected from Catapult Sports’ player-tracking devices. 

In partnership with statistical company Champion Data and the AFL, Catapult’s innovative wearable devices are being used by all 18 clubs.

Bowden Westover, head of marketing at Catapult Sports, believes it’s a partnership that has flourished over the years.

“Catapult invented the product category in 1999 prior to the Sydney Olympics and worked exclusively with the Australian Olympic team for the first seven years before commercialising in 2006,” he said.

“Australian sports science (in 2006) far surpassed every other country in the world and AFL teams were the perfect first market for the technology given the size of the field, the number of players on each team, and the need to quantify movement to better understand the physical demands of the game.

“In 2017, every team, and most VFL and U18 teams, use Catapult to mitigate injury risk, assess readiness for matches, and quantify return to play from injury.”

Newly released data allows the public to track player movement. Picture: AFL App/Telstra

Champion Data has historically kept more advanced stats hidden from the public but while that will remain for the foreseeable future, other modern player tracking information has been widely released for the first time. 

From 2018, host broadcasters Channel 7 and Fox Footy are set to use selected GPS data as part of their coverage.

As the AFL and its players completed a record-breaking collective bargaining agreement deal in late June, player access loomed as a key component in the deal. AFL footballers are now being paid an average of $371,000 a year and in the eyes of many, there was a belief fans craved more than just the traditionally released stats. 

In early July, GPS data was made available in real-time for anyone to access in the form of a top-five ranking across multiple performance indicators. 

Modern football relies on 22 players contributing to an overall team structure and as such, many in and around the game want to know more about how their respective sides set up across the ground.

Catapult’s technologies capture sprinting during AFL matches. Picture: AFL App/Telstra

No longer are how many possessions a player gets good enough. The demand is for data that reveals how players affected the contest and whether they ran defensively once the ball was turned over, giving a better indication of how individual players and teams in general are tracking.

The data now readily available includes repeat sprints, overall distance covered during a match and work rate.

After more than a decade working with Australian clubs, Mr Westover said Catapult’s relationship with all 18 AFL clubs had become a part of “everyday operations”.

“In every training and match, every player wears a Catapult device while on the field,” he said.

“The information is viewed in real time by sports scientists on the sidelines, and then downloaded post-session to gain a better understanding of individual and team outputs.

“Teams can plan training sessions based on game data, replace generic fitness testing with footy-specific drills and use the data for recruiting purposes, so they know when an U18 player is ready to perform like a senior player.”

Release of GPS data has invited the wider footy world into the minds of club officials, allowing more people to track player performance during the season.

Players from most AFL clubs wear Catapult trackers during training and matches: Picture: Catapult/Facebook

Westover declared that Catapult Sports aims to engage the public through the release of specific player-tracking technologies.

“A big part of our strategic plan is to provide fan engagement applications to promote interaction with the data between elite teams and consumers,” the Chicago-based Mr Westover said.

“Our data tells you exactly how much work a player has done, and how hard they’re working, so provides fantastic contextual analysis to what is happening on the field.

“Catapult provides a platform where the public can gain greater insights into their favourite players and teams.

In recent years, Catapult has expanded their footprint across multiple Australian sports, with Westover confirming they have tailored their GPS technology and data modelling to specific codes.

“In addition to every AFL team, we’re also working with every NRL team, every NBL team, and many Super Rugby, A-League and Super Netball teams.

“The baseline data is essentially the same across every sport, but we are developing more and more sport-specific metrics that provide specific value for specific positions.”