How Analytics Has Changed The World of Professional Sports

by Nov 6, 2019

For some people, data analytics may conjure up images of large data sets being processed to find answers to questions that are important but largely uninteresting to the general population. While finding a new way to market their widgets might make company management and stockholders happy, the audience for that type of analytically driven information is very limited. The same can be said for the data analysis that is used to make many business decisions every day.

But there is one industry that has used data analytics to revolutionize some of its most time-tested methods of operation while generating intense discussion among the millions of individuals who partake in its products. I’m talking about the world of professional sports.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Billy Beane, whose story was told in the movie “Moneyball”. He is credited with being one of the first sports executives to make extensive use of analytics, which he used to make the Oakland A’s a contender on a very limited budget. His success ushered in an age of data analytics that has changed the face of Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and many other sports.

Analytics in Baseball

Beane’s Oakland team outperformed expectations but never rose to the heights he had envisioned, falling short of winning a championship. The analytic seed was sown, however, and was picked up by other teams with an open mind and a vision for the future. One of the most obvious effects of analytics on baseball are the defensive shifts that are used to take away a hitter’s favorite spots to hit the ball. Moves such as redeploying the shortstop to the first-base side of second base would have been unheard of to baseball traditionalists. Yet you see this strategy used by most teams in an attempt to negate the prowess of the opposing batters.

One way the knowledge gleaned from analytics has impacted players is in the unwillingness of team ownership to approve of the large, long-term contracts that dominated MLB in the 1990s and early 2000s. The data crunchers have determined that giving players 12-year contracts is not in the best interests of the team’s finances and may not produce the expected value on the field. Pitching and fielding are becoming more important due to the information uncovered by analysts, and the days of paying players for past glory is soon to be a thing of the past.

Dribbling Through a Sea of Data in the NBA

There is a wealth of data that can be collected during an NBA game. Teams routinely deploy numerous video cameras to study the movements of every player during a game and practice. They help teams position their players more effectively and can even be used to identify hidden injuries. Analytics is responsible for the change in offensive strategy that now depends on three-point shots and layups and is leading to the demise of the mid-range jump shot. One might wonder as to how Michael Jordan would fare in the 21st Century NBA.

The benefits of analytics in the NBA are demonstrated by the Golden State Warriors. They have used analytics to reach five straight NBA finals, of which they won three. Their opponent in four of the final series, the Cleveland Cavaliers, also were heavily into analytics as they attempted to surround Lebron James with the perfect complementary players. This season, the Houston Rockets may smash all records for three-pointers attempted and made with their lineup of James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

An Example From the World of Formula One

The 2005 Monaco Grand Prix is perhaps the first time that real-time analytics was used to impact the results of a Formula One race. The McLaren team chose not to pit their driver Kimi Räikkönen during a safety car period in opposition to the tactics employed by all of the other teams. This was done on the advice of many analysts who were studying the plethora of data points that inform the team as to the condition and potential of their car and driver. It proved to be a master-stroke as Räikkönen went on to win the race, largely because of McLaren’s analytically-driven strategy decision.

Harnessing the Power of Data Analytics

The use of analytics in sports shows no signs of slowing down. As more data becomes available, it will be used by informed general managers to give their teams a competitive edge. They just need to use the right tools to process and understand the information with which they are making their decisions.

Aqua Data Studio can help any business make more effective use of their data resources with its capacity for performing data analytics and producing compelling visualizations that highlight its results. The results may not make as many headlines as Steph Curry draining a series-winning three-pointer, but they are vitally important to the companies that are performing the analytics. After all, a win is a win no matter who’s watching.