Day 2: Sports Analytics Innovation Conference

Although day 2 of the conference had a slightly lower attendance, perhaps due to the lack of a presentation from a representative of a professional football club, it was every bit as interesting as day 1.

Having listened to all the speakers I’m in a better position to give a general review on my thoughts on the conference and the state of analytics on the basis of what I saw. Today we heard from top speakers from both codes of Rugby, UK Sport, the England and Wales Cricket Board, British gymnastics, the NFL and a couple of start-up companies that offer services to professional sporting organisations. We did indeed have representation of football analytics in the guise of Professor Chris Anderson, whose presentation I will discuss later on in the post, and a panel discussion including participants from the Times, Man City, AC Milan and the BOA.

The first speaker of the day, Scott Drawer from UK Sport, gave a roots and branches discussion of performance analysis and its use at elite level. He made an useful point about how sporting organisations protect their innovations by keeping them secret which in his opinion isn’t neccessarily the right strategy: “it’s not what you do but how you do it”. It’s quite easy to nod and agree with this line of thinking – in terms of sharing knowledge and information – as in many cases we might think that it is preferable to level a playing field in order to identify what teams operate best with the same knowledge. But I’m not personally convinced by this perspective.

My background in business and economics reminds me that companies in some industries require incentives in order to spend heavily on research and development. Take the pharmaceutical industry as an example; for all the investment required in research, development, testing and advertising new treatments – the grand proportion of which fail long before they are allowed into consumption – the pharmaceutical company is awarded patents that protect their rights to manufacture and distribute new medicine before the competition can sell the same formula. The patent enables the innovator to gain a reward in profits for the large expenses undertaken to bring a new medicine to market and in turn the consumer benefits from better treatment.

Now to baseball, and every sport analyst’s favourite example: Moneyball. If Billy Beane’s ‘new’ methods were widely distributed as he first started pursuing the Jamesian strategy, would he have bothered to think and work outside the box? Moneyball the book had so much early popularity that the strategies and metrics used by Oakland were identified and copied very quickly by their rivals – how much longer would the approach have worked if Moneyball had never been published? No doubt by 2003 some of the secrets were being found out anyway, and simply by the departures of JP Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta more of the insider knowledge would have diffused to other teams.

Back to the conference and another example: Alicia Rankin, Data & Insights Manager for the NFL, gave a presentation with one of the heaviest focuses on team business strategy – specifically discussing the role of NFL stadiums in spectator satisfaction. She provided examples of different innovations in stadium design which consumers responded well to – in this case, sharing organisational tips of how to effectively improve infrastructure for the benefit of the customer. For this situation, sharing innovations like instant replays played for the crowd, better parking design and wi-fi infrastructure are all much easier to sell in terms of the benefits to pretty much all stakeholders – from the fan to the teams themselves and also the league. Rankin also played a video with Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish you were here’ as the soundtrack which is always going to go down well!

Bill Gerrard, current technical director for Saracens RFC who recently collaborated with Billy Beane at MLS team San Jose Earthquakes, emphasised the need for analytical ideas to be accepted from the top-down – if the leadership doesn’t buy into the notion of analytics in their sport then the process is doomed to fail. Professor Chris Anderson took this one step further by telling the forward-thinkers in the room to fight hard for their work to be used or otherwise “you might as well work in insurance!”. At least Saracens certainly seem to be instilling an holistic approach to analysis as Gerrard explained the utility of an open-plan coaching office environment and an array of coaches with diverse backgrounds including medicine and law.

I found Prof Anderson’s presentation about football analytics quite refreshing. His opening statement that “football analytics has stalled” raised a few eyebrows in the room. His argument was interesting, I am sure that the representatives from football clubs that were present may have disagreed with some of his opinions, however I get the impression that he is close to the truth. I think football could well be in a kind of post-Moneyball period of scepticism (which in reality could lead to the same mistakes in football as pre-Moneyball) where it has become all too easy to discredit analysis. Why? Because analysis of a game with 22 agents moving independently over 90mins is very complex when compared to the relatively simple baseball actions of pitching and hitting (yes I know there is more to baseball than that but you get my point). For me that’s too easy to use as an excuse – a defeatist attitude that won’t drive progress, and there is perhaps too much of a fixation on Taleb’s black swan! Football analysts could turn out to be feeding out misinformation in order to maintain the secrecy of their technical methods, but in general everyone would probably agree that there is the need for a mixture of traditional coaching and analytics. But how do we find the right mix of analytics? My impression is that the football clubs remain a little too conservative.

A few conversations I had with representatives from gambling firms confirmed my surprise that none of the speakers seemed to spend too much time or effort involved in player data analysis or prediction. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we should stop trying – as Michael Bourne of the ECB noted in a quote from George E.P. Box in his presentation today, “All models are wrong, but some models are useful”. Prof Anderson’s rallying cry to drive innovation in football analysis was nice to hear considering the vast resources available to football clubs – indeed many of the sports and analysts covered by the conference have to work on much smaller budgets with much less support in terms of data availability and yet in many cases they are making a significantly bigger impact.


2 thoughts on “Day 2: Sports Analytics Innovation Conference

  1. soccerlogic

    Thanks for a weel written and informative summary. And I agree with Prof Anderson… the problem is that those who have the data don’t know how to analyse it. Have you seen any analysis published/presented by Chelsea or MCFC, the two clubs supposedly at the forefront of football analytics?


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