BLOG: Sports by the Numbers

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Conclusions

Virtually every hour of this two-day event, there are six different panels and lectures to choose from.  I attended as much as I could while still covering the event and was not present for 49 different events, and that was just on Friday.  That’s not to mention the many sports science exhibits, software presentations and other technological displays I was unable to see readily.

Perhaps one of the things that has attracted more than 3,000 people to this conference is the depth of sports analytics presented.  Poster presentations and white papers are available for the deeply analytical.  Other events like panels speak of analytics in broader, general terms.  Even if a sports fan only wants to see players and coaches discuss their craft, there is a place for that person too.  There is also a variety of subjects covered, from business analytics to athletic performance measurements to sports journalism and even to the future of how we will watch and listen to games.

While sports like football, hockey and soccer were covered, there were not as many baseball presentations as one might expect.  Analytics have progressed more within that sport than any other.  One reason might be a national sabermetric conference happening the same week in almost the other end of the country.  It is also Spring Training with many MLB teams preparing for the season.  Still, it might be a positive development for sports analytics to stress other sports so it can branch out and attract different fans.  On at least two occasions, panels discussed how the NBA and basketball have the most room to grow internationally in terms of popularity.

The conference also took on developing stories.  The Steph Curry phenomenon of making so many lengthy basketball shots had its share of supporters.  Away from sports, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com updated his political findings of who will be the major party nominees for President.  Even conversations I had with presenters and attendees involved sports stories happening in the moment.

If analytics do not whet your appetite, this conference may not change your mind.  After all, the pro-analytical comments were often received with at least some fanfare, a kind of “preaching to the choir”.  For anyone who does have the slightest interest in sports analytics, chances are there will be at least one lecture or exhibit that will make for an informative weekend.

Evolution of Sports Journalism

Of all of the panels at this conference, this was the one I was most looking forward to (surprising, isn’t it?).  While it took a circuitous route to discussing sports analytics, it was a journey worth taking.  For you young journalists, pay attention closely.

One of the more dominant voices on the panel was Jaymee Messler’s, President of the Players’ Tribune.  Her company describes itself as “a new media company that provides athletes with a platform to connect directly with their fans, in their own words”.  Founder Derek Jeter says he hopes the site will “transform how athletes and newsmakers share information”. 

“We’re not following the news cycle,” said Messler.  “We complement the media really well…driving stories that are compelling and are not getting covered by the [traditional] media.”

Here’s how it works: an athlete has a message they want to deliver.  The Players’ Tribune offers a platform replete with resources to make sure it is exactly what they want to say.  While traditional media might lose the ability to break the story, they gain material for questions the next opportunity they have for an interview. 

The criticism involves the last part of this sequence.  Why would the athlete grant an interview?  Why would they talk about something if they feel everything about it has already been said?  If they spend less time with reporters and more with the tribune, how do you build trust?

“The barrier to entry is zero,” said David Dusek of Golfweek.  “You can, with a few clicks, get your voice out there…the players are much more controlling in that way and they have a way to react directly to fans (sometimes the media) and to have their voice heard…it’s interesting to see how it’s becoming more challenging.”

Reporters already had challenges talking to athletes before the Players’ Tribune thanks to athletes’ social media accounts.  They already have a way to communicate to the public so a reporter may seem like a middleman.  Traditional media also has to compete with new media that can provide scores and highlights more quickly than they can present.  Lastly, clichés have become even more tired than ever.

What’s a reporter to do?  One solution: analytics.

“Analytics is just one avenue to get a creative solution around limited access,” said Carl Bialik of fivethirtyeight.com.  “We do want to talk to people in the sports world about what we find…some of the best interviews I’ve had are with people who are rarely asked about certain things.”  These things include data trends, advanced statistics and specific forecasts.

Not all reporters can (and perhaps should) research their own analytics.  It may not even be the unique route they should take to become more creative.  There also isn't empirical research suggesting this approach is sustainable with the rise of performance analytics.  What matters here are the conflicting forces that make the journalist’s job more challenging. Fortunately, there are solutions, hence the evolution.

 

The War on Analytics

Goose Gossage isn’t the only one profanely fighting analytics.  If you believe some of the speakers at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, there exists a countermovement to the quantitative revolution.

Perhaps it was most appropriate the 10th anniversary of this meeting began with a “Moneyball Reunion” panel, including the author of “Moneyball” Michael Lewis, the Godfather of sabermetrics Bill James and an assistant for the Oakland A’s, Paul DePodesta.  That team’s general manager, Billy Beane, found a reason for using analytics when scouting players.

“Billy used to tell our scouts…’I have all of this experience’”, said DePodesta, referring to Beane’s 25 years of working in some capacity in Major League Baseball.  “I can’t walk into a high school game and say ‘This guy is going to be a star.’  If I can’t do it, I don’t know how anyone can do it…we have to come up with a different way,” said DePodesta.

The team combated old school thinking by finding players who were devalued in some way by others.  Sometimes it was due to their physical stature.  Lewis recalled the story of the A’s considering Alabama catcher Jeremy Brown, who many considered overweight: “He’s so fat, his thighs would rub together and set his jeans on fire.”

These stories happened more than a decade ago.  Just like analytics, the criticisms and concerns have evolved.  The second panel of the day focused on basketball and featured former NBA forward Shane Battier.  He originally resisted analytics for a more personal reason.

Teams can quantitatively gauge a player’s health when it comes to sleeping habits, nutrition, etc.  On the surface, it seems franchises would only need to know this information to maximize a player’s health, thereby making him/her more effective.  But Battier’s concern was that teams would find some data to devalue him and have reason to pay him less and/or offer fewer years on a contract.

“It’s called capitalism,” said Battier.

Personal reasons or otherwise, Battier does believe there is a stigma within NBA locker rooms about what he called, “the math”.  Though he claims it extended his career as he aged, it’s “still not cool to be hip to the math”.  He did add if a player found analytics to be useful, they might find subtle ways to learn to how to improve.

The conflict between believers and non-believers rages on.  Safe to say this conference preaches to the choir.  When asked about Goose Gossage’s comments that baseball is now run by nerds, Bill James’s response received one of the louder ovations of the morning: “Back in 2002, you had to pay attention those guys.  Now, you can just ignore them.”

 

Talking About Playoffs

Taking a personal tone with this blog entry, one of the more interesting panel discussions of the day involved playoff analytics.  Specifically, how do we devise the best system for determining a champion for each respective sport?  It’s a philosophical question as much as it is analytical because leagues could simply have one-game championships for every sport; and though it would be exciting, it would also be inherently unfair for teams that would win a series but lose the opener.

Each sport has its own set of challenges.  While the NFL cannot play as many games as other professional leagues, college athletics must deal with other factors.  NCAA executive Oliver Luck points to class time, money for travel and time commitments that, if abused, would be unrealistic for student-athletes.

However, at the forefront of these conversations is attracting the most loyal fans.  They may not want to see a nine-game World Series (something I have argued for) because it is too long to retain interest.  Nine games might be a truer way of determining the best team in a series—especially with expanded starting rotations—but in the end it is what the fans want, and that is something analytics can help with.  NASCAR Vice President of Strategic Development Eric Nyquist pointed to how analytics helped his sport redo the Chase for the Sprint Cup so that a champion is not already determined by season’s end but it is not entirely haphazard as to who earns honors as the top driver.

Playoffs can also have other benefits when done correctly.  Luck said the College Football Playoff has helped teams schedule more competitive non-conference games.  It has also helped college basketball in spotlighting conference tournaments and conference games (though admits non-conference games could be more popular than they are). 

This panel also agreed on an underlying truth that analytics highlights: there are many more games that would have to be played in all sports to determine the best team, at least thousands.  Because this notion is unachievable, the next best thing is to come up the playoff format in the sport’s best interest.  Who does it best?  Neil Paine of fivethirtyeight.com says the NFL because it preserves uncertainty but the winner is often in the conversation of one of the top teams that season.  The NBA, meanwhile, has too much certainty and only a handful of teams, if that, have a chance at a championship.

It would be ponderous for me to go through each sport and say whether I think they conduct playoffs properly.  I also understand why uncertainty must exist to keep fans interested so there are fewer things to point to that would dissuade fans from following the playoffs.  Still, I would hope leagues avoid caving too much to all of the whims of fans and perhaps provide a product that is fairer to the teams competing for championships than those rooting for them.  I have found it is in the long-term best interest of a sport to maintain an unaffected, traditional system and not make determining a champion seem so capricious. 

As a postscript, I found professional bowling to be the worst in determining a champion.  In the tournaments I covered, early rounds would be a matchup of two bowlers in a best-of-seven series of matches, but once you reach the final rounds—which are televised—it is one match determining who advances and who wins the whole thing.  To prove my point, I would like to believe this is why the sport is not as popular as it once was.  I am probably mistaken, and if you are adamantly opposed to this idea, might I suggest a winner-take-all debate.

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The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Boston this year.  Some of the bigger names in professional sports, both in front offices and on the sidelines, will be attending to share their thoughts on sports analytics and perhaps debate their value.

I will be attending this gathering for the first time.  As a journalist who also studies sports analytics carefully, I look forward to sharing the latest ideas and research from this conference that describes itself as a dedication "to fostering growth and innovation in [sports analytics], and the conference enriches opportunities for learning about the sports business world."  There is a lot of content available and this blog will provide a running commentary of what I discover.

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