In 2018 the AFL will delve further into a data-rich world

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

American author Mark Twain, and the man he supposedly quoted, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, were clearly statistics sceptics. And you would think in 2017 that such scepticism would have subsided. But in the AFL, a data-rich sport that is only becoming more acutely analysed by the day, statistical analysis is still met with some scepticism.

That scepticism sits largely along generational lines. There are those who still yearn for the days of one-on-one match-ups and the traditional playing positions of yesteryear, but the game has moved well past that point. And the AFL's two official statistical partners, Champion Data and Catapult, are well aware of the dilemma.

Champion Data captures the event statistics of each game -- kicks, marks, handballs, etc -- while Catapult captures the physical data of the players through their wearable GPS technology, the small units that sit inside a pouch of a player's jumper on their upper backs. The units measure a player's physical output throughout each game. The players also wear the units at training, and they are vital tools for the sports scientists at the respective clubs.

The signing of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the AFL this week has paved the way for Catapult and Champion Data to release some GPS data to the broadcasters for the first time. Moving forward fans will be able to see the top five players in several physical categories in games, total distance covered and top speed among others. But the CBA has limited this to the top five players for several reasons. Firstly, it ensures the data isn't used to negatively critique a player's output, and secondly the fans aren't drowned by numbers without context.

Catapult's Chief Operating Officer, Barry McNeill, tells ESPN that the AFL has got this patient approach right.

"Probably the appetite is bigger than what we want to provide at the moment, just because we don't want to scar it," McNeill said. "And we also don't want to damage the teams in that if we release something that says the top five distances covered were X, the top five number of sprints were these players, that's like us beginning to drip feed some content rather than just going there's a 1000 data points per second from one device, so you can imagine we can drown people. Working with elite sport for 17 years, we've understood that you've got to go carefully to get to the end.

"I think the AFL is probably the league globally that more prepared to get this right, to be perfectly honest. In a lot of other sports the data is a lot newer. But the AFL is probably now learning what physical plus event data means. So if you're in possession of the ball as a team, your distance covered is probably less than the team not in possession, which is common sense. But sometimes in soccer that's counterintuitive. So we shouldn't publish stuff too early without fully understanding it. Given the world of big data, Champion and Catapult have got data scientists now rather than just sports scientists who understand the types of data they want. We have now people who understand the types of data we produce. The two work really closely together."

Glenn Luff, a senior AFL analyst at Champion Data who works closely with television broadcaster Fox Footy, knows the challenge better than most. His task is to take the enhanced event data and analytics and present the story in a simple understandable manner. But sometimes even in simplifying the data it can be interpreted as complicated.

He is excited by the prospect of GPS data but says the challenge is making sense of the information and making it interesting and relevant.

"This is all new to us as well," Luff said. "That's the challenge for this whole new world. Putting context to all the information. It will be interesting once this GPS stuff hits the screens whether people are into it or not."

Luff's colleague Travis Jelly, Champion Data's Commercial Manager, has experienced GPS data in sports broadcasting in a previous role with Channel Nine's cricket coverage. He tells ESPN the numbers are one thing but visually representing them to tell an interesting story is quite another.

"The basics are self-explanatory, top five distances and all that," Jelly said.

"The next level is migrating that and that's where it becomes powerful.

"I've been involved in other sports where they have gone down the GPS track. But it's just raw numbers. How interesting is that? You need to go beyond that and explore how it influences the game and patterns and things like that, where players are positioned and how they influence a game. Being able to display that in a visual way is probably the most powerful."

Catapult and Champion Data are currently working on a project that brings the event data and the physical data together in a 2D model.

At present the only way to present defensive zones and running patterns visually is through end-of-ground broadcast vision and manual graphics added by the broadcasters themselves. The issue with that is it can only represent a one-off structure for a certain piece of vision.

Catapult has been capturing data at Etihad Stadium for 18 months with a permanently placed Local Positioning System (LPS) that gives a more accurate reading of players' positions in relation to the ball and each other at any one time than does a GPS.

"Teams are getting a really accurate positional, within 10cm accuracy, what we call a X Y location on the field," McNeill says. "If you put the 2D map across the field we know within 10cm at any one time where every single player is and at what velocity they're running at."

That data is fed into a live 2D computer generated model that visually presents where all 36 players are on the field at any given moment.

By combining the LPS physical data with the event data, the players' raw stats, suddenly there's a much more enhanced and sophisticated analytical tool for coaches to use.

"The coach is going to look at a much more user friendly visual tool," McNeill says. "To get the coach in a room for an hour watching it play through, I think it's going to bring a new series of questions which refreshes the analytical process in the AFL. To be perfectly honest, it's a bit of a game changer."

This is an exciting development, but it is a slow burn.

The LPS data is only available at Etihad Stadium at present, so games elsewhere do not get the live feed. There is also a commercial cost involved for the clubs and the AFL that is still being worked through, and there is a natural unease about all clubs being able to have a visual representation of their defensive and offensive structures made available to each other.

McNeill has experience in rolling this out in the English Premier League through data company Prozone.

"In the Premier League, people could see each others' data from the year 2000," McNeill says.

"I think there's an understandable nervousness from coaches saying I don't want anybody looking at that. But trust me that is always phase-one fear. Phase-two fear is everyone should have everything and it's how we interpret it to shape the Monday to Friday training to beat the opposition."

McNeill is confident the teams and coaches will eventually be comfortable with this being rolled out to all grounds for all teams.

The final phase will involve the fans.

Whether this technology ever reaches them in any way shape or form will be a major question that only the clubs and the AFL can answer, and it won't be answered any time soon. But the possibility of modern fans, who more and more are using second screens through smart phones, tablets and computers to consume their football, seeing the tactical shape of two teams in certain scenarios is a fascinating.

"I think the future from a second screen point of view is where the players are on the ground, being able to track players, being able to see how they're set up when the ball is in their half," Luff says. "Or there's 30 seconds to go and there's a kick in and they've got to get it to the other end, they've got a second screen and they've got a live look."

McNeill says there will always be the Mark Twains of the world but they're a diminishing audience.

"I go to a game and I see the older generation, the baby-boomer generation want to watch it the way they've always watch it. They're not our audience moving forward.

"Then you've got a generation that are caught between both, and then you've got a younger generation that will probably look at a phone longer than they will look at the field. And that's a missed opportunity if we're not pushing content to that phone."