Big Data is proliferating more and more into everyday life. As better tools for moving, storing, processing and analyzing massive data streams emerge, widespread use is becoming commonplace. In sports, where detailed statistics have always played a key role in the player, coach and fan experience, it’s only natural Big Data would ultimately find its way in.

Multinational insurance company AIG, a major partner with New Zealand’s national men’s rugby team (the All Blacks), is collaborating with New Zealand Rugby, USA Rugby and sports data company Opta to launch the AIG Rugby Innovation Challenge. The challenge gives software developers unlimited access to Opta data of the 2012 New Zealand All Blacks season, as well as USA Rugby data. Using data feeds like match results, season rankings and totals, stadium feeds, player profiles and stats, and x/y coordinate data of where each play took place on the rugby pitch, developers will create and submit apps designed to change the way rugby fans experience the game, or educate users about the sport.

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The applications fall into three platform categories. Developers can create apps that run on Android, BlackBerry, iOS or Windows Phone smartphones or tablets; in Web or mobile browsers; or on Windows or Mac desktops. Android apps need to be submitted using .apk files; Windows Phone apps with .xap; and Windows PC apps with .exe. Contestant resources also include APIs and SDKs with the freedom to integrate as many as the developer likes.

AIG, USA Rugby and the All Blacks provided rugby images and video footage for the competitors to incorporate into the apps. They’re putting on the app challenge to grow awareness for the sport, and because their relationships with these rugby associations and Opta put them in an ideal position to supersede data copyrights and give developers access to a wealth of otherwise hard-to-obtain data and multimedia content.

“Rugby is not quite that big in the U.S., but outside it’s one of the largest, most recognizable sports in the world,” said Daniel Glantz, global head of sponsorship for AIG. The International Rugby Board claims a record 3.9 billion viewers saw the 2011 Rugby World Cup worldwide, and it expects that number to grow in 2015. Rugby will also be a full Olympic sport in 2016 for the first time since 1924.

Glantz had never experienced rugby before AIG began its partnership with New Zealand Rugby in 2012, but he quickly took to the sport. When the company posed the idea of creating a rugby app, he had the idea of opening the opportunity up to software developers.

“Why build an app ourselves?” Glantz said. “Why not encourage the developer community and see what they can come up with? We would love someone to come up with a creative formula, a new metric like in ‘Moneyball.’ A new stat to gauge the performance of a player.”

Glantz is especially excited about one particular data stream: the x/y coordinates, allowing developers to re-enact the whole game visually, plotting the location of each play as it took place. According to Glantz, the Opta data has received more than 400 downloads from 30 countries since the data was made available for the challenge, and at least 20 to 30 apps were already entered with two days left in the submission period ending Oct. 9.

Building the challenge
When it came down to organizing and running the challenge, Glantz turned to ChallengePost, a platform that powers software competitions and in-person hackathons. Last December, Glantz was riding the New York City subway when he saw an advertisement for the ChallengePost-powered MTA App Quest, a challenge to create apps that enhanced riders’ public transit experience. He reached out to the company about the rugby app challenge.

“It’s not a work-for-hire thing, where we give you a chance to win money and then we own your app. It’s not that at all,” said ChallengePost CEO Brandon Kessler. “We want you to build something amazing and own it for yourself, but use our data or our platform to achieve something cool. This challenge, to me, is key because it’s the first one to say, of course sports data is important. People have been obsessed with sports data forever, but let’s actually release the data to the public and let developers create incredible apps, which are better than anything these rugby organizations could do on their own.”

(An early example of getting data from sports: Business intelligence hits the gridiron)

Kessler was just as animated talking about the implications these apps could have on the way fans consume rugby, and sports in general.

“Maybe using the geographical data that comes from X and Y coordinates, you could show data visualizations that could be insightful in a way you’ve never seen before,” he said. “As opposed to sportswriters talking about what happened in a given game, how interesting might it be to see visualizations across an entire sports team’s actions? In the same way you can visualize clicks on a website, maybe it would be interesting to visualize certain patterns geographically.”

While Kessler couldn’t yet talk about any app submissions, he allowed himself to explore the possibilities.

“Maybe you’re really obsessed with one particular player or team,” he said. “A developer could create something for fans who have no interest in sorting through data; someone could consider making something for the average fan as opposed to the hardcore fan. There are unlimited options for improvements and interesting creative takes on the sport and the way the data could improve it.”

By the Oct. 9 deadline, contestants must submit their app incorporating at least one AIG Opta rugby data feed, as well as a video demonstrating how the app works. From Oct. 21 to Nov. 4, a panel including members from AIG, Opta, Adidas, USA and international rugby, the Brooklyn Nets and New Zealand All Blacks players will judge the quality, implementation and potential impact of the apps, before the winners are announced on Nov. 16. Another judge is entrepreneur and rugby enthusiast Mark Cuban, who got his start in software as a salesman for Your Business Software (one of the first PC retailers in Dallas), before starting his own tech companies: Micro Solutions and AudioNet.

The winning developers will receive prizes anywhere from cash, round-trip New Zealand flights and All Blacks match tickets, to free data feeds and consulting meetings with Opta, plus app exposure on both and

Aside from the overall first-, second- and third-place prizes, there will also be awards for Best App by a University Student, Best Rugby Education App, the Popular Choice App, and the AIG Recognition Award for large companies that entered apps.

“Software innovation in sports is in its infancy, and in my view it’s inevitable that it’ll become part of our everyday interaction with sports, among new and diehard fans alike,” Kessler said. “So getting in on the ground floor of this could suggest and open up really strong business opportunities to developers, not just as fans but as business-oriented app creators. This is just the beginning of software developers playing a big role in the consumption of sports.”