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How the Experts Quantify Sports

From identifying raw talent to measuring team chemistry, experts discuss the statistical side of sports.

This year’s Sports Analytics Conference, held by MIT’s Sloan School of Management, drew a great crowd (as it did last year), and not just because Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics All Star guard, and Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, were present. Front-office executives stole the show as they discussed potential strategies for gathering and analyzing data on such things as a player’s passion, defense skills, and team chemistry, as well as on the fan experience.

Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets and conference co-chair, kicked off the first panel, “Evolution of the Fan Experience,” by reminding people that “it’s during these tough [economic] times that the most sports innovation happens.” Brian Burke, president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, discussed some of these innovations–seats embedded with screens that let fans pick the content that they want to watch, and text-messaging systems that let fans poll during an event. “It’s all about content and delivery,” said Burke. Overall, he said that the challenge is building an infrastructure that incorporates gadgets and devices that bring fans off the couch and to the venue. It’s focusing on the “points of contact” from the time the fan leaves her house until she gets back home, added Mark Donovan, senior vice president of business operations for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Burke also made it clear during the panel that fighting, which he encourages in his players, is essential to the historical roots of hockey, not just a money driver. Jeff Van Gundy, an ESPN analyst and former NBA head coach, could not agree more. “Sportsmanship is overrated, and [NBA] players have turned into a bunch of softies,” he said, and he thinks this is a reason that the NBA is missing out on rivalries, especially in playoffs. “The crowds are passive and the players are too friendly. They rip each other during the game and then are hugging afterwards!”

But how do teams find the next big superstar–the one who not only wins championships, but also draws the fans? The New England Patriots, one of the most analytically advanced franchises, has been known for its unique scouting system. “The Patriots have coaches and scouts work together: every position coach has to explain to scouts exactly what he is looking for. Is it going to be an All-American or a Matt Cassel?” said Jack Mula, general counsel for ScoutAdvisor, who previously worked for the Patriots.

While coaches and staff can judge a player by his numbers, it is still difficult to measure the intangibles–passion, heart, personality, and team chemistry, to name just a few. But Mike Forde, performance director at Chelsea Football Club, said that measuring the intangibles has changed, especially for soccer, where the mechanics of the league (the English Premier League recruits across 25 leagues) are now more international. “Bringing impartiality to a subjective area has to be done analytically.”

Yet there is not a spreadsheet for hard work and good personality, said Aaron Shatz, founder of Football Outsiders. “The intangibles are important, and we just don’t have numbers for that.”

Dean Oliver, director of quantitative analysis for the Denver Nuggets, has a different take: “If you want to study one thing, you have to ask what it is. Heart? What is the evidence of it? By breaking down its parts is how you make what is intangible tangible. You have to turn words into numbers and numbers into words. If someone says that player is good or bad, there is a mathematical set of equations.”

Not even Bill James, the pioneer of statistical analysis in the most statistically advanced sport (baseball), has yet to find a spreadsheet with the answers. “Everyone is looking for that secret sauce,” said Cuban. In basketball, “no one shares because there are no standards.”

Unlike baseball, team-oriented sports like basketball, football, and soccer are faced with an even tougher challenge. “Events are not as discrete in football as they are in baseball. You cannot just drop a hitter in a lineup even if his style is different,” said Shatz. “It’s not enough to say the player is talented; he has to fit the team’s scheme. Plus, there are just so many positions that don’t have statistics.”

Even though baseball is farther along in quantifying performance–the league has now turned its sights to measuring defense skills–there is still a lot of unused data, said Oliver. “The key is to find the right data to analyze, and there is variability on how people do this.”

“You don’t want to let the other team know what you are doing,” said Mike Zarren, assistant executive director of basketball operations and associate counsel for the Boston Celtics.

The conference wrapped up with a panel called “The Value of Icon Players.” The panelists agreed that there is not a price you can put on a player that transcends his or her sport, and data doesn’t have to tell you who such an icon player is. “That person knows who he or she is as well as the team, but in the locker room, it’s not talked about,” said Allen.

In this video experts on a panel called “Basketball Analytics” including Morey, Cuban, Zarren and Oliver, discussed ways to quantify sports.

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