The Rise of Sports Analytics

Jubby Santos
March 4, 2019

Analytics! This has been around for decades but it has never been applied to sports. But recent developments in sports has made its leaders and players appreciate the value of Sports Analytics in their profession.

“Moneyball” started the analytics revolution in sports. Michael Lewis wrote the book in 2003, which was later turned into a movie in 2011 starring Brad Pitt. It talks about the Oakland Athletics, a Major League Baseball team with a relatively low budget, and its then-General Manager, Billy Beane. They uncovered an undervalued statistic and used that as one of their main metrics in acquiring talent. By the end of that season, the Oakland A’s, with their $40 million budget, finished the season tied for 1st. The team they were tied with? The New York Yankees, which had the highest team salary, in the league, at $120 million.

(Chart) Payroll by team 2002 MLB Season

Figure 1. Bar chart that shows the difference in payroll between the New York Yankees and the Oakland A’s. (Data Source: http://www.thebaseballcube.com/extra/payrolls/byYear.asp?Y=2002)

Fifteen years since the book’s publication, other teams and sports have seen the value of analytics, making it a part of their programs from athlete training to marketing and team management. Most of the largest professional sports teams have their own analytics team and have invested in technology made for collecting data.

The NBA is the best example for this. They require teams to install multiple cameras in their stadiums to track the movement of players and the ball 25 times per second. As a result, teams can know how fast a player runs, the number of passes made, the spacing of the players, and so on. The technology gave teams an objective view of how the game is played and will eventually change the way basketball is played.

One of the biggest shifts created by this approach was making teams embrace the 3-point shot, while discouraging the long 2-point shots. In addition to improved court spacing, teams discovered that, while having a lower percentage of success, 3-point shots will still give teams more points when they do go in, kind of like a “bigger bang for your buck” thinking, instead of taking the only-slightly-higher percentage long twos.

Analytics for Understanding the Fans

Analytics is helpful not only for the teams, but also for the viewing pleasure of the fans. In a 2011 survey by ESPN, only 29% of sports fans preferred watching the game live than at home, this is decreased from 54% in 1998. To remedy this problem, teams turn to analytics to identify the cause and, hopefully, create a solution to improve fan experience.

For the Miami Dolphins, one cause discovered was the hassle of lining up for parking and concessions. To resolve this, they partnered with IBM to create data streams that inform the fans of the shortest lines in the stadium.

Another issue of fans is the lack of instant replays when watching live games. Two teams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Brooklyn Nets, created mobile apps that allows fans to watch replays, as well as improve the experience of buying tickets to games.

Analytics Improving Sports

The best way to use analytics in something as random as sports is not to make it appear like a replacement to the traditional ways of the competitions but as complementing them. It answers the naysayers and showcases that it is a way to confirm or explain in better detail what is seen. Basically, if the data and the traditional ways agree with each other, then it is most likely true. Otherwise, there might be more investigating that needs to be done.

Sports Analytics will never be truly perfect because it deals with unpredictability of people. But it can be used to improve the quality of the sport and everything around it. By doing so, everyone – fans, athletes, and sports organizations alike – will have a better, safer, and more fulfilling time participating in these contests of human ability.