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Big Data and Analytics, The Future of Sports

The common sports fan is in the dark when it comes to sports analytics and the phrase “big data.” For many people, complex statistics and formulas aren’t what sports are about. It’s about home runs, touchdowns, goals, and slam dunks.

Have you ever wondered why teams like the Boston Redsox, San Antonio Spurs, Oakland A’s, and New England Patriots have had sustained success over the past decade?

It’s because of sports analytics.

I’m sure sports fans are familiar with the term “Money Ball,” but that really only scrapes the surface of the data that is collected to make important decisions. Professional teams are all small businesses. They want to protect their investments (players) while making sure their product performs well.

Whether people acknowledge it or not, sports analytics are useful to all parties involved in sports. The data can help owners bring in the correct players through the draft or free agency. Coaches can put the best players on the field with deeper evaluation. Players can refine their craft with more studying and commitment. Fans have always been emotionally attached to teams, but with the explosion of Fantasy Football they want the best players in their lineup to win their fantasy championship.

Sports analytics aren’t just about number crunching, at it’s root, it’s about competition. It’s about getting the leg up on the opponent. It’s about about being the best at what you do. It’s business, and it’s going to be more common in the near future.

Let’s dig a little deeper for some more understanding of how analytics can improve each of the parties involved.

As mentioned before, front office personnel are looking for players and coaches who can win. Winning breeds popularity, and in turn, more money ends up in the owners’ pocket.

It’s important that they bring in the right players for the best chance to win and create a successful environment. The Patriots are a big believer in using big data on personality and attitude. They don’t just guess that players will work out. They use systematic processes that meet their criteria of what fits with their team. This is why the Corey Dillon and Randy Moss were made and worked well. Unfortunately the data doesn’t guarantee success, just look at the the Aaron Hernandez situation.

This type of monitoring goes deep with players. In the draft process, owners are assessing everything about the player almost to the point of crossing ethical boundaries. Of course they are going to analyze on field ability, but things can also get personal. Don’t think these players Facebook and Twitter accounts aren’t being monitored. They are also looking at areas like driving records and personal conduct in school. It might seem harmless to rack up detentions in school, but who knows how that data will be assessed by possible employers in the future.

Owners also use analytics in ticket pricing and marketing. The San Francisco Giants have used variable pricing for specific games including rivalries or in accordance to how well the team is doing. They use around 120 categories of data to arrive at the appropriate pricing for each seating section. They also use ticket bundling with sponsors to create other money making options.

More teams are looking to set up their own Wi-Fi networks in their stadiums. This way they can monitor fan activity using specific hash tags. They often promote certain handles on TV, and in the stadium for everyone to see. It also allows them to judge who’s at their games. Age, sex, social standing, are evaluated for better marketing.

An every day example might focus on online shopping. Let’s say you shop for a car online. It’s no coincidence that the pop-up ads on the page are for air-fresheners, and floor mats. It’s because all your information is being mentored for better customer assessment.

Next, the coaches also benefit from the influx in available information. It’s become common place for Bill Belichick to go for it on fourth down. Many coaches are conservative, but he’s a believer is analytics and more often than not he’s going to go for it. Successful or unsuccessful the likelihood of it working is based on information he has compiled while assessing opponent, time, and situation.

Coaches will also be able to keep closer tabs on their players production and health. In practices the Buffalo Bills have been using GPS tracking devices to monitor things like heart rate, totals steps even acceleration and deceleration.

A specific on field example could come from wide receivers. Coaches can try to perfect route route running. They can figure out if they are getting into the route quick enough or if they are rounding off their routes. They can increase timing and precision to make sure they optimize their abilities.

Nobody is saying that the coaches are less important because of big data. The coach still has to motivate his players and keep them working each day. It’s clear that more data is very useful, but they still have to know how to utilize it to be effective.

From a health standpoint, there in no doubt the NFL is going to focus its efforts on gathering analytical data to monitor concussions. With player lawsuits still looming they must find ways to show they are making efforts to keep an eye on long term concussion effects. It could also be used to monitor issues with major and minor injuries in other sports. The data can also speak to recovery and performance afterward.

In the NBA, certain front office executives construct their teams with specific analytical data. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey made a huge splash acquiring James Harden and Dwight Howard. That wasn’t by accident. He realized the best fit for his team was to get players who use optimal shot selection either near the basket or from three point range. People often talk about the lost art of the mid-range jumper. It’s not just because the players choose not to shoot it, it’s because the percentages are better with layups/dunks or three point shots from ball rotation.

Players can also benefit from big data if they choose to utilize it. Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play. He has great talent, but he also focuses on analytics to assess himself. He doesn’t look at what he did right, but rather his mistakes. He plays back over each of his incompletions and interceptions. He asks himself why it happened and picks apart how he can avoid it next time. This type of information is there for all players if they choose to be critical of themselves and put in the extra work to correct it.

Finally, fans can be beneficiaries of analytics. There is a reason Fantasy Football has exploded. It’s fun and people use it to gamble. It also provides the ability for people to pretend they have an NFL front office job. A tremendous amount of data is focused around this game daily. People look at stats like targets, touches, passes and receptions over 20 yards. It’s no longer about counting completions and touchdowns. It’s about gathering as much data to make informed decisions about players to help your team win.

The analytical capabilities are getting to the point where they will soon be able to monitor players during games. It’s only allowed during practices and only a few teams have the technology at this time.

Just think from a fantasy owner’s perspective.  You’ve always wanted to know who to start in sketchy weather situations, big rivalry games, or just against the best defenses. Much of that is thought to be chance and unpredictability.  That’s still true to an extent, but when players are allowed to wear GPS devices on game day their production can finally be monitored. Then we can have information for specific players in the elements of weather. You will no which players will perform in clutch situations by monitoring players performance in accordance to their heart rate and body response.

The possibilities and endless, exciting and little frightening all at the same time.

Whether you own a sports franchise or are an avid fantasy football player, big data effects you and you probably didn’t even know it. This is still a fresh concept to most people and it will expand in the future. To neglect useful information is silly especially when it’s all around you. Some believe it in and others don’t, but there is no doubt that we as a society are marching ahead with big data in other career fields and the sports world is following suit.


Picture from: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Matt Banks

Matt Banks

Senior Writer at Riverfront City Sports
Covering sports and coaching basketball are my passions. Huge Dallas Cowboys, Boston Celtics and Kentucky Wildcats fan. Very passionate and opinionated.
Matt Banks

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