Analytics and Data -You want it, but why?

Justin Butler, Sr. Director-Technology, Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx
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Justin Butler, Sr. Director-Technology, Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx

Everyone today knows that analytics and data are hot industry trends.  Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Presidential candidates, the CIA, non-profits, for profits, and just about every other large, medium, and small organization is fighting for your data in one way or another.  What happens next once they get it is the real key. It is one thing to have a database full of data, and it is  completely another to actually know what you want to do with that data.

While data and analytics are not new to sports, Moneyball has been around for a while, however they probably have never been hotter, and on more decision-makers minds than now. Your favorite sports teams are using data in almost every way imaginable. Data permeates sports organizations from the front office to the business side and all the way down to the fans themselves.  

Teams in the front offices, are either already heavily investing in analytics folks to crunch the unimaginable amount of game night statistics being collected on a nightly basis, or are starting to make those investments to catch up with  teams that have been on the cutting edge for a while. They are using this data to help them identify trends within not only their own team, but across the league. Often times trends with players and teams can start before coaching staffs are able to pick up on them and address them.  A well balanced team tries to mix the old school, the eye-test of former players and coaches on staff, with the new school, relaying on analysts to help crunch the numbers and spot trends.  If you do a Google search on your top performing teams in the different professional sports leagues and attach analytics after it, you will often find several stories about the tremendous amount of data they crunch in house as well as outsourcing to firms all over the country to help them.   

  As data collection continues to ramp up, and we all fight for space to store it in, compute it, and continue to throw more resources at it.  The key will continue to be the human mind and what we want to extract from the data   

Teams and even the sports leagues themselves like the NBA and NFL, employ big money to capture this data. There are companies like SportVU, which use six optical based tracking cameras seated above the court to help NBA teams track every single movement made on the court during a game.  This data helps coaching staffs see the floor from a top down perspective that helps map out the player movements throughout the entire game. This lets the coaching staff work on such things as team or an individual player’s spacing on offense and defense, to how much distance a player runs in a game, to shots contested, and how quickly the ball moves from player to player. There are other companies like Catapult that have wearable technology for players that can track and provide valuable data to the training staff and coaches on how the players are doing on non game days. They track how many miles the players are running, how fast and how hard players can  run during practice, or if injured players are not able to cut and explode off a leg like they were able to when fully healthy. This helps coaching staffs to be able to fine tune and tailor their practices during long seasons to put players in a better position to succeed, by getting them on the court or field healthy as possible.

While often the media focuses strictly on the technology that the teams use with regards to players, the business side of teams also invests heavily into technology to help them do their jobs as well. Social media is one of the easiest to understand as every team has a Twitter account, Facebook page, or Instagram account to connect with their fans.  But it is  other technologies such as team developed apps that really help teams capture data whether you are sitting at home listening to the game audio through the app, to browsing the latest news updates on your favorite team, or using beacon technology while in the venue attending a game.  Beacon technology helps track almost every moment within a venue, from the time of your arrival to your departure, what doors or gates you are using when you enter, at what times you are  getting up to visit the concession stand, how long you stand in line at the concession stand, if the venue pushed an ad to you while you stood in the concession stand line, where you more likely to buy that advertised ‘special’.  These technologies help teams gather feedback from fans and to help fine tune future in stadium experiences so that each visit gets better and better at the venue.   

While the teams have embraced the analytics and data aspect of sports, so have the fans.  From the explosive growth of online fantasy sports to in-depth bloggers who cover teams like they were on the coaching staff. The sports fanatics of the teams have really moved from the traditional newspaper style blogging to comprehensive articles with videos and true cutting- edge analytics that rival what teams often produce themselves. This point was driven home when the Sacramento Kings crowd sourced their 2014 draft.  It was a bold move on their part and some within the NBA might say was a crazy move, but it really highlights the passion fans out there have when it comes to the analytics and data of professional sports. Content being created by fans today is truly amazing and the promise of what lies ahead as the professional sports leagues provide more and more access to their data for their fans is exciting.

As data collection continues to ramp up, and we all fight for space to store it in, compute it, and continue to throw more resources at it.  The key will continue to be the human mind and what we want to extract from the data.  Reading the data is one thing, but being able to harness the power that can come from that data is still the secret recipe we all drive for.

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Justin Butler, Senior Director of Technology, Minnesota Timberwolves