Analytics in Professional Sports Only Gets It 50% Right
You don't have to be a sports enthusiast to appreciate the stresses involved in a coach or manager's job. They've got fickle fans who love them when things are going well, skewer them when they don't. To be sure, fans can be relatively patient when they know their team lacks competitive talent but, regardless of whether or not the talent exists, if winning doesn't happen within a certain window of say a year or two those same fans are prone to storm the castle - unless they're seeing glimpses of a better future on the horizon. Yes, one way or another managers and coaches have to find a way to win. Excuses only last so long.
Job security in sports team management doesn't come with the territory even if you've got the long-term blessing of ownership. These endorsements are fleeting and every coach knows it. Regardless, if ownership isn't making their manager's accountable the team's fans sure have a way of keeping them on their toes. WIth that in mind what does a manager or coach do to exceed expectations with ever-present barbarians at the gate?
These statistics can help low payroll teams compete. Author Michael Lewis gave this approach mass market life in his book Moneyball about Billy Beane's small-market major league baseball team, the Oakland A's, and how they were going to compete by acquiring talent based on important metrics like on-base percentage and the like that previously were unappreciated statistics. Despite this newfound and now acceptable formula for evaluating talent, coaches and manages still have an extremely intense job as they're being asked to work on everything from player personnel and defensive and offensive team strategy while balancing these approaches with the short- and long-term revenue and profit performance goals for the organization. It's not enough to just manage the team you're given you've got to be the personnel and budget director too. These new normal rules apply whether you're the coach and/or general manager here in America in the NFL, MLB or NBA or a manager for one of the world's top football clubs.
Analytics is everywhere in sports going beyond just player personnel decisions. Yes, regardless of the sports league and geographical location, if you're running a professional sports team it's more than likely you and your staff are performing round-the-clock, in-depth analysis of not only your competitors, their player capabilities and situational in-game tendencies, but also you and your staff are reviewing your own player strengths and weaknesses while analyzing what major moves competing organizations are making so that you can stay competitive with an eye on the bottom line.
Teams may choose to sacrifice short-term success by trading away older players to gain draft picks and/or cash which they can spend on younger up-and-coming players or even just bank it for a future opportunity yet to surface. But really this is just the beginning of what team managers and their executive teams are doing to be competitive in the here and now to either remain competitive or become a top club in the years to come.
In the NFL here in America data's used to determine offensive play calling adjusted on-the-fly depending on the success or failure of the previous play and the defenses setup to stop the play calling. Coaches use a marriage of predictive analytics which points to the best plays to call. (It should be noted though that NFL coaches still seem to think they know more than the analytics choosing to go with their gut than rely on a "computer's advice." Look for that old school thinking to change in the years to come.)
Yes, anyone who follows sports knows how much professional sports franchises have become data-driven in all or most of their decision making. In fact, it's become so rampant that clubs nowadays are using historical data trends to spot injuries before they happen. This is all good to a point but I'll get there in a minute.
Successful teams are using data to understand arcane facts about players and team/player tendencies depending on the situation which also helps clubs uncover overlooked junior league players a team can draft or sign. Still, there's the human input side that plays a role in every team decision to 'give the numbers meaning'.
So, why do I bring it up? Simple. Because not many organization's are using the power of information feedback, or data input coming from the human resources in the organization - or, better, feedback from the workforce.
The data used in sports today is driven by hard facts like passing yards (NFL), goals (NHL), points (NBA), on-base percentage (MLB), or assists (EPL) but don't account for any outliers that only human intervention can identify. In an October 5th essay in the Wall Street Journal the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of the United States, Ben Bernanke, discussed the art of analytics and performance, including the power of using data and human-driven feedback to make the ultimate decisions that account for the short and long term benefits to the organization. It's a great essay that is certainly representative of how decisions are made not only in baseball but also in corporations and government.
Who is your favorite sports team and how good at analytics are they? Would love to hear some examples.
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