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What are sports analytics really about?

This week I’ll be speaking at the 10th annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference along with dozens of professionals from baseball, ice hockey, basketball, and more. It’s a chance to reflect on what this industry is for and also why it has been so controversial. Let me start with the sport where, at least in the public eye, it all began.

I’ve been a baseball fan for most of my life. During this time, the sport entered the “moneyball” era, with increasingly complicated statistical methods being used to evaluate players and tactics. And for the most part, I didn’t notice.

That doesn’t mean I stopped watching baseball. But all the fancy analytics that were making teams more competitive and financially viable scarcely changed my experience of watching and enjoying the game. Once in a while, a television commentator would refer to a pitching statistic that was unfamiliar to me. It didn’t bother me much. At the stadium, of course, there was no difference at all.

I see no reason why analytics in soccer/football can’t be as seamless and invisible to the casual fan. And that’s why I’m puzzled that so many journalists, pundits, and fans are hellbent on keeping analytics out of the game.

It’s especially puzzling this season. The rise of Leicester City in the English Premier League has captured the imagination of millions of fans and launched thousands of articles in the media. It is a rise fueled in large part by analytics, thanks to the efforts of one of the world’s best technical scouting and performance analysis groups, hosts of a recent conference on tactical insights. But how many fans know the names of the people laboring over their computers in Leicester to find potential stars in Ligue 2 and holes in the defenses of teams playing 4-2-3-1? Probably very few – and that’s just fine.

Yet other clubs have noticed. Last year Tottenham poached Rob Mackenzie, who was head of Leicester’s technical scouting, and his successor Ben Wrigglesworth has just moved to Arsenal. Both London clubs have long histories of using analytics, either through consultants or in house. Yet neither one forces analytics down its fans’ throats with marketing, in the media, or on game day.

There’s no need to. Analytics in any business are not about winning an ideological war with stakeholders; they’re about making better decisions. It’s hard to see how this could be a bad thing in soccer/football.

How many clubs have paid millions for a player who turned out to be a flop? How many have overspent only to collapse in debt? How many have been blindsided by relegation and tumbled down the pyramid, like once-great Portsmouth? These are wrenching moments for fans. Analytics can’t stop them from happening altogether, but analytics can reduce their frequency.

That’s what NYA is all about: deepening the quality and financial robustness of the game at the highest levels. But all of the firm’s work is confidential. NYA signs non-disclosure agreements with its clients and its subcontractors as well. We may already have worked for your club, and you’d probably be none the wiser. If we made your club a little bit better without affecting your enjoyment in any other way, then it was a job well done.

So I don’t necessarily cheer when a commentator talks about shot ratios or when an expected goals map pops up on my television screen after a match. Some fans may like these things, and others may not. The key is that the sport has a chance to become more entertaining and sustainable, with more Leicesters – and fewer Portsmouths – every year.