Why the Sports Analytics Industry Took so Long to Boom

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Sports statistics in one form or another have been around as long as the games themselves. While quite simplistic in the beginning, merely tracking how many points scored in a match, they have evolved into a complex array of equations to measure every aspect of a player’s and a team’s performance.

 

With the great importance placed upon sports statistics, it is a wonder that it took so long for these industries to truly use the available data to help improve their teams. What it really comes down to is a fear of change and an uneasiness about giving up power.

Sports and Society

People often feel comfortable in the past. Humanity is a creature constantly at odds with itself. As a species, we are largely afraid of change yet keep striving forward into the unknown anyway. We try to improve while fearing the steps that we take to do so.

 

Aside from the importance of the two movements being greatly out of balance, many parallels can be drawn between the push for advanced analytics in sports and the push for equality in society.

 

In both movements, you have entrenched powers that always benefited from the way things were done and look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. In their view, every aspect of both the game and life was perfect in their youth, and any changes can only mean that things are getting worse.

 

Then you have the dreamers in both worlds. Many of these dreamers were held down by the old system. They look back at the past with a reasoned eye and see all the places where things could get better. They don’t look back and see nothing worth salvaging. They are not proposing that the old ways be completely scrapped and that rebuilding should begin from a fresh slate.

 

They are merely looking at the areas where things could be improved. They are pushing to keep what was good and replace what was bad. Change is necessary. Stagnation leads to decay. A house is always in need of repairs, and better options for replacement parts often exist.

The Powers That Be

People are passionate about sports. That is a simple fact of which everyone is aware. Whether you have a personal passion for sports or not is another question, but you surely know people who do.

 

While nostalgia is a powerful force and the main reason that fans don’t like change in sports, it is not the primary reason that sports analytics have faced such a rough road to acceptance.

 

The main reason analytics faced such strong opposition has to do with the people who run ballclubs. There are many levels of management when it comes to a sports team.

 

At the top, you have the owners. Most owners are not very involved with the operations of the club. Generally, they just want their team to be profitable and win games. They rely on other people to make both of those things happen, though. They usually only get involved when things are going poorly, and someone needs to get fired.

 

Then you have the business people. They are responsible for making sure the team makes money. Part of that is having a winning team. However, that is not a part they tend to be involved with, unless, once again, somebody needs to get fired.

 

Then you have the people in charge of making sure the team wins. These people who put the team together and make sure that they are playing at the top of their game. This group consists of coaches and general managers. This is the group that stood in the way of analytics.

The Old School

Coaches and general managers have typically been around the game their entire lives. Almost all played the game on some level. Some ended their playing days after high school, others after college, others made a go at it professionally, and some had long, successful playing careers.

 

These people all know their sport. The problem is, they tend to think they know it better than they do. As a whole, these people have been afraid of analytics. They fear it because they don’t understand it. They also fear it because they are worried that if it takes hold, they could find themselves out of a job, or, at the least, with some of their power stripped away.

 

Incorporating sports analytics into a team means bringing in people who know these complex mathematical models and can interpret the data to decide on the best course of action regarding a player or a team.

 

A general manager who gets a recommendation from a scout and watches a college kid play might decide they want to draft that kid in the first round. However, the analytics might show that while this kid has some flash, they are also deeply flawed and don’t deserve nearly that high of a pick in the draft. A general manager might find their gut feeling being overruled by someone in analytics telling them it’s no good.

Money Makes the World Go Round

At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to money. If proper use of analytics can lead to more wins, then it will lead to more money. The higher levels of club management will push it forward if the lower-level staff is unwilling.

 

Analytics hasn’t fully swept through the sporting world yet, but the wave is making its way towards shore. With tools like a football video analysis camera for the most important events, sports analytics companies are a greatly expanding business.

 

Not all lower-level management is resistant to analytics. There are some general managers who have embraced the move to look deeper into the game they love. Business analytics has been used since the 1950s. However, despite sports analytics theory being developed in the 1980s, it wasn’t much put into practice until Billy Beane took advantage of this tool to help the underfunded Oakland Athletics baseball team compete.

 

Beane saw that his team needed an edge because the system was stacked against them. He was willing to put his own ego aside and let the math into the game. By doing so, he helped to keep himself employed, made a team that was vastly underfunded competitive, and forever changed the game he always loved… for the better.