Innovation Enterprise conducted a two-day Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in San Francisco last week. This is Innovation Enterprise’s speciality — conferences and online learning focused on “big data” across business, finance, media and sports. Last week’s summit featured presentations focused on two general areas of sports analytics — (1) analytics that enhance training, development and performance; and (2) analytics that enhance marketing, ticket sales and fan engagement.
This post will highlight the presentation on analytics for training, development and performance. Later this week, I’ll focus on innovations in analytics for the business side of sports.
Before getting into the details, a few preliminary thoughts.
The conference was billed as an innovation summit, but the idea of what constitutes an innovation wasn’t defined. I suppose we all understand the concept of innovation as representing advances in a particular way of thinking. But “sports analytics” is a broad topic. What might be viewed as an innovation in today’s NFL could very well be considered old news among MLB teams. Most of the presentations were particular to a team or a sport, and there wasn’t much discussion among the presenters and attendees about taking lessons learned in one sport and applying them to another.
The lack of participation by MLB teams was nonetheless noticeable, if not terribly surprising. Stan Conte, the Dodgers’ Vice President of Medical Service and Head Athletic Trainer, spoke about the analytics of injury prevention. Russ Stanley, Vice President of Ticket Sales for the Giants, made a presentation on how the team uses data to keep AT&T Park filled for every game. The Mariners sent their three-member analytics department. The Orioles’ Director of Baseball Analytics — Sarah Gelles — also attended. No one from the A’s presented or attended. No one from the Giants’ baseball operations group presented or attended.
It’s difficult to know if MLB teams stayed away because the conference had more of a focus on football and basketball, or vice versa. I wonder if these sorts of broad “sports analytics” conferences have much appeal for MLB teams, given how far along baseball is on the analytics curve compared to other professional sports. Of course, it may simply be a matter of conference logistics — timing, location, price — that had a greater bearing on who presented and attended. Still, it seemed odd to attend a conference on innovation in sports analytics in the Bay Area and not hear from anyone at the A’s.
Onto the presentations.
- Professional Baseball Injury Analytics: Stan Conte talked about the Dodgers’ efforts to track, analyze, predict and prevent injuries. The team collects information on each player’s demographics and genetic history, medical history, fitness and training, biomechanics, and use in games. Conte made a similar presentation as a part of a panel discussion at this year’s SABR Analytics Conference. You can watch a video of that presentation here.
- Analyzing Team Chemistry: SABR Chairman Vince Gennaro has been interviewing players, coaches and front office personnel in an effort to quantify what team chemistry is and how it affects team performance. He’s worked with supercomputer company Cray to crunch the numbers. Gennaro defined chemistry as degree to which players are invested in their teammates and team-oriented goals, and are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. He reported that the players he interviewed strongly believed in the importance of team chemistry. Gennaro believes that support among teammates is more important in baseball than other sports because so much of baseball involves the individual batter-pitcher matchup. This may seem counterintuitive, but Gennaro argues that baseball demands constant teaching and adjustments, and that players need to have the help and support of teammates to succeed.
- The Art & Science of Data Analytics in the English Premier League: A fascinating presentation by Jo Chubb, lead sports scientist for Chelsea FC. Chubb used this graphic to demonstrate all of the data the team collects and for what purpose. She talked in detail about the tension between Chelsea’s sports science and data analytics teams and the players, who believe that the data is stifling the players’ control of their fitness and creativity on the pitch.
- How Analytics Benefit Teams: Brian Hampton is the Director of Football Administration & Analytics for the San Francisco 49ers. Hampton discussed how the team collects and analyzes data on the odds of success for a myriad of plays in a myriad of circumstances: for example, when to use a timeout, punt, try a two-point conversion, spike, kick a field goal on 1st down or kneel. The team uses that data to plan a game strategy in the week leading up to the game. But the NFL prohibits coaches from using cellphones and tablets 90 minutes before — and during — a game. So coaches can’t run queries to the team’s database in real time to decide on what to do next. According to Hampton, the NFL believes that “play on the field should decide the outcome, not which team has the best technology.” This struck me as an odd position for the NFL, which is the most micro-managed of the four professional sports.
- Building A Sustainable Analytics Department: Michael Clutterbuck is the Director of Basketball Analytics for the Milwaukee Bucks. Clutterbuck joined the Bucks last year after three years working with big data sets and econometric models at the University of Wisconsin to evaluate teacher, school and district performance. He estimated that a quality analytics department costs at least $250,000 for personnel and technology. That figure seem pretty low. He spoke about the five pillars of an effective analytics department: data integrity, automation, speed, consistency and communication. Analytics teams may be interested in a variety of research, but coaches want specific, game-relevant information. For research, Clutterbuck said, he “treats the blogs as his unpaid interns. Why duplicate their efforts?”
- More thoughts on NBA Analytics: During a roundtable discussion, we heard from Ken Borkan, Manager of Analytics for the Phoenix Suns. Borkan reports directly to the Suns’ ownership group, and oversees analytics for baseball and business operations. Ownership’s directive — use data to win games and make money. Borkan noted that as owners and coaches get younger, we’ll start to see a dedicated analytics coach who uses real-time data to make in-game adjustments.
We know from Stan Conte’s presentation that injury prevention is part of the next frontier for baseball analytics. It would be interesting to see MLB teams move toward the kind of detailed player evaluations performed by Chelsea FC — collecting and mapping physiological, biomechanical, and psychological changes in players before, during and after games.