Why is the sports analytics industry thriving in Ireland?

Sector offers way to improve gains in the stands as well as on the field of play

Something interesting is happening in sports analytics in Ireland. In the past two years we have seen a flurry of start-ups in the field, including RugbySmarts, Fulltime Analytics, Outputs Sports and Trojan Track.

Dublin-based sports analytics company Kitman Labs raised $52 million (€49 million) in a Series C funding round last year, while Irish sports-tech company Orreco doubled its workforce with a €3 million investment led by True Ventures, the first institutional backer of FitBit and Pelleton.

As part of the establishment of a new global Rugby Centre of Excellence in Limerick city, Stats Perform has just announced 100 new roles at its EMEA base there.

The global economic value of analysing sports data is up for debate, but most evaluations land well above the €2 billion mark, and the sector is growing at anywhere between 21 and 27 per cent per year, depending on what you read. Europe is predicted to be the largest growth market in the next two to four years.


Giddy early estimates for the growth of sports analytics were undercut by the pandemic. Now that all the major sporting events are back, however, there is a surge of demand for software, hardware and services that allow sports bodies to capture and analyse data in real time to get the most from team talent and supporters’ wallets. Budgets are tight, and data analytics offers a way to improve earning capacity not just on the field but in the stands, too.

Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence have changed the game. Plugged-in coaches see the value of on-field data in optimising team performance, training schemes, individual player development and injury prevention. This data, expertly processed, combines profitably with off-field data for use in team selection and game strategy.

Machine-learning algorithms can identify the right player for each position based on data collected on home grounds and overseas, in various game conditions and against differing opponents. Fan management analysis is another alluring service that promises a better return on marketing. And when the money comes in, data analytics can streamline efficiency and enhance buying and selling decisions in every area, from merchandising to TV rights.

Sports economy

Why is Ireland a hotbed for sports analytics R&D right now?

Firstly, sport is big in Ireland. The most recent tally put the total value of sport to the Irish economy at €3.7 billion. That was in 2018, and it represented a doubling of output in a decade. With the sports economy growing faster than the general economy, it’s likely to be even more productive now.

Secondly, Ireland’s profile on the world pitch, particularly in rugby, means that what works here is likely to be eyed up internationally. Output Sports’ sensor data work with Irish rugby and GAA players catapulted the start-up to contracts with the English Premier League, Major League Baseball, Six Nations Rugby and the NBA within two years of launch.

Thirdly, Ireland is big in data. We have the full spectrum of data expertise in the Irish research network to handle all the aspects of sports analytics, from body sensors capturing player movements to stadium cameras capturing crowd flow. We have the engineering expertise in our universities to harmonise these data sets so that everyone from the coach to the accountant can draw from the same dashboard. We can also provide the governance piece that addresses legitimate concerns regarding data security and privacy for sports organisations.

There are big players operating globally in this field: Oracle, IBM, SAP, SAS Institute. However, Irish sports bodies have access to a national State-backed data research network. It is called the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics and it counts among its 450 members a large number of researchers with backgrounds in physiotherapy and sports science, as well as data engineering, sensor technology, image processing, governance, Trustworthy AI and the entire knowledge base required to make sports data sing. The flourishing of sports analytics start-ups began with the research base we have developed in data analytics generally, and sports in particular.

Strategic partnerships

Insight has already worked with companies and organisations such as the GAA, Arsenal FC and other English Premier League clubs, Connacht Rugby, Orreco and the Aspire Academy, among others.

According to the most recent estimates, the global sports analytics market is worth more than $2 billion, and that is expected to grow to $8 billion by 2026. Ireland is ideally positioned to act as a test bed for this expanding area. Our small size and the way our research ecosystem is structured means we can ride this wave. At Insight we have already applied our research to individual athlete data in order to boost performance, to stadium data to increase efficiency, and to organisational data to assist in planning and resource allocation.

What needs to happen for the sector to really burst open is for major Irish sports bodies to form strategic partnerships with sports analytics networks here. Insight has already worked with sports organisations on large projects running into hundreds of thousands of euro, as well as smaller groups and projects with much smaller budgets. There is huge scope to engage more of these large and small organisations in partnerships that will boost the data research economy and the sports economy in tandem.

One of the restraints on growth in sports analytics is a lack of awareness in the sector about the benefits of sports analytics solutions. Data generated on- and off-field is worth a fortune, and sports clubs need to start cashing in. We have the home advantage.

Noel O’Connor is chief executive of Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics