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Big Data Now Big Sports Business

The past few weeks cerebral fans of baseball have been done in by information overload. On the East Coast there was three days of stats of all kinds at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference in Boston, and then at the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, in conjunction with the World Baseball Classic.  If you are a numbers crunching, dyed in the wool baseball fan, the two events are nirvana. If you get a headache balancing the check book, stick to watching highlights on ESPN.

However for all the detail, all the deep discussions and the acronyms thrown about, statistical analysis by the teams, who have spent millions on salaries, remains  the biggest business opportunity for those involved with sabermetrics. It’s the reason why teams have invested thousands of man hours into building front office staffs that combine traditional scouting with those who have an analytic background, and it is the chief reason why companies like Bloomberg Sports, with a history of success in the financial world, have gone into predictive analytics for sports as well.

Still, even with the large investment, is there ever too much? “I think for sure there can be sensory overload if you sit there and study every piece of data that can be presented, but there is also great value to being prepared and knowing how to use information,” said Giants middle reliever  and proponent of big data Javy Lopez during a players panel at SABR on Thursday. “You have to know what information you need to get your job done and sort through the superfluous stuff. If you can do that then yes there is a place where data can be very effective.

Lopez was joined on the panel by Arizona Diamondbacks starter Brendan McCarthy, another of a growing legion of players who realize that analytics, especially combined with video, can be a powerful tool in getting ready for your next opponent. “Sure sometimes maybe we have too much and we overvalue what data can tell us about doing our jobs, but at the end of the day it is a resource to be used, and we should be able to mine that data to come up with an effective way to help us do our jobs, it makes good sense,” he said.

Clubs today have invested millions of dollars to come up with effective ways to use analytics to determine and predict both player performance and outcomes in game situations. Jerry DiPoto, the Los Angeles Angeles General Manager, was almost giddy when talking about the ways the Angels can use systems, like the one they have designed with Bloomberg Sports, to scout opponents and potential talent and also get ready for a game. “The system we use can give us any parameter we want in a player or a matchup in seconds, whereas the traditional way would take hours sometimes,” he said. “It saves us time, gets us better prepared and helps our players and coaches do their job, so why wouldn’t we use that type of technology?”

Technology still remains only part of the process, and that’s a good thing, according to all those front office personnel and players at the SABR event. “The live scouting of players should never go away, that is still the core of player evaluation,” DiPoto added. “However augmenting that with data analysis, especially in game situations, gives us an edge we never had when I was playing. The two together make the best possible outcome for everyone, and gives us the best chance at success.”
Which piece is more essential, the scout or the laptop? “I would say on scouting its 60/40 at least scouting to technology,” added Stan Kasten, now the Dodgers President and CEO after years helping build the Braves and the Nationals. “For game situations it may be a little more reversed, but in player evaluation there is nothing that beats live scouting.”

Still, the task of effectively using all the data out there for players and coaches can be daunting. Some players don’t want to know what’s coming next, while others comb through hours of video on tablets to make sure they are prepared. Lopez, who has spent 11 years in the Bigs, was introduced to analytics at an early point by the Boston Red Sox and realized right away that the information available was a worthwhile way to help him prep. “When I was with the Red Sox we had big believers in analytics in Theo Epstein and (pitching coach) Joe Kerrigan and we had Curt Schilling and Jason Varitek as players who could consume and evaluate all kinds of data, so the value was seen in the results,” he added. “Now have I been elsewhere where that type of evaluation and use of data is not as widely used? Sure. But I still think if you have the tools you use them to your advantage, and that’s what I try to do.”

The value proposition in all the data lies primarily with the team. For fans? Yes there is fantasy and lots of water cooler talk, but it remains the clubs who have the most to gain, and most to lose in big data for baseball. Is there another place where data and fandom will mix? Bill Squadron, president of Bloomberg sports, touched a forbidden subject in American sport where data will be king, something that the company is growing in engagement with abroad. Gambling. BSports has a consumer tool for soccer in Europe right now, one which could be transported to any American sportsman’s handheld device if and when sports gambling does become legal in America in the future. There is also a potential opportunity for brands to capitalize on all that data mining now as well. On Friday SABR announced a deal with Rawlings Sporting Goods to use an analytic system to help determine the annual Gold Glove Awards. If that system works, using set analytics to determine award winners in any sport could become the norm, and a good example of ROI for an investment in statistics.

So while all those numbers can drive anyone to distraction, the past week has proved from a value and marketing standpoint that big data does have a business home in baseball, and the use of analysis in sports business is growing, with expanding opportunities as technology becomes more effective and simpler to adapt to the games people play. What used to a fun hobby is now part of the big business of sports, and for those with a penchant for numbers crunching, the opportunities which were once few and trivial now abound in excess, with more coming every week.

 

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