The higher education sector is grappling with numerous tough questions in light of the pandemic, with whether and how to restart college sports top among them. After the NCAA allowed voluntary workouts for student athletes to resume on June 1, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases at training facilities throughout the country.

But, as Chris Hayhurst asked in a recent EdTech Magazine article, “Why are some college sports teams experiencing outbreaks and not others?” Like much of the discussion surrounding COVID-19, it’s a complicated question and one to which we may never know the entire answer. However, many universities that have been successful in preventing the spread of infection point to the role of data as key to safely restarting college sports.

Hayhurst’s piece includes examples of data-driven initiatives from a number of different programs. While their specifics vary, a key benefit of each is their ability to help colleges move quickly should an outbreak occur and easily trace others who may have been infected.

Hayhurst describes an app developed by the University of North Florida which will ultimately be used by all members of the UNF campus community. He writes, “After users answer a series of screening questions, the app will determine which UNF students, faculty members, staff, vendors and visitors are cleared to come on campus…For those who are not cleared, the app will provide detailed instructions on how long to self-quarantine and when to seek medical advice.”

Of course, the role of data analytics in sports is not new. According to Hayhurst, “Today, sabermetrics—the analytics approach made famous in the book Moneyball—has trickled outside the confines of Major League Baseball stadiums and all the way into collegiate sports.” Acknowledging the importance of talented players and experienced coaches, he also describes “…what some consider a secret weapon: staffers adept at using data analytics to help their team gain a competitive edge.”

These analytics teams have likely never faced a challenge as complex and critically important as the situation in which they find themselves today. Collegiate athletic associations are expected to announce their decisions on fall programs imminently. But it’s safe to say that data will play a central role in the return to collegiate sports—whenever it may happen.

If you’d like to read more, see this recent APEX of Innovation post on how sports provides data analytics lessons for business leaders.