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Using Data to Win: Sport Analytics Panel Explores a Changing Industry Landscape
May 04, 2018
“Is the NFL ready for an analytics revolution in sports?” asked undergraduate moderator Sydney Robinson ’19 in the McCormack Department of Sport Management’s April 3 panel discussion, Every Yard Counts; A Conversation on Football Analytics. “This is the time to get in. It’s a big thing to establish that thought process,” said panelist Dean Oliver in regard to the evolving use of data analytics in sports. Organized by the student group, the Association of Diversity in Sport, the panel also featured Diane Bloodworth, and McCormack alumnus Dan Hatman ’11 M.S. Once a pioneering analytics consultant with the NBA, Oliver is widely known for his former role—on and off the air—as ESPN’s metrics guru. Today, he is Vice President of Data Science with the Boston-based sports analytics firm TruMedia.
Hurdles to the full-scale adoption of analytics in the NFL persist, Oliver continued, but those tools are becoming indispensable given their competitive value. “Player tracking data will revolutionize the game,” he emphasized, citing once elusive statistics like how long a quarterback holds the ball. The new analytics, he said, include the QBR (total quarterback rating), comprising clutch-weighted expected points added separately via passes and runs, quarterback playing times, and other measures.
"Better data can inform better player decision making." Employing film to capture point of play data allows you to drill down and determine why “production” did or did not occur, observed Hatman. You will get results with a smaller sample size, but you’ll still need to overcome “lots of noise to figure out what is meaningful,” he said. The Isenberg alum is Director of Scouting Development with the Scouting Academy, an analytics-based trainer of football scouts. As a former scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, Hatman prepared analytics-based scouting reports on the team’s opponents.
“It’s still tough to get reliable statistics for high school and college players. The pros have much better data,” observed Diane Bloodworth. Diane is President, CEO, and Founder of Competitive Sports Analysis, which provides analytics that help colleges improve decisions in recruiting high-school athletes. Among other things, Bloodworth’s data points capture play-by-play, wellness and injury, and trading-related information. “But many coaches still prefer the subjective eyeball test. Our goal is to make the subjective more objective.”
The Power to Transform
Data analytics, remarked Hatman, are transforming our evaluation of player attitudes, techniques, and discipline. They allow us to understand why great athletes fail. Winning, he continued, can hinge on finding little improvements and the “routes” that lead to them. Minutiae matter. As examples, Oliver offered two measureable data points: the angle of a quarterback’s eyes and the position of his hands.
“The leagues want greater parity among their teams,” underscored Hatman. “To that end, they are looking for opportunities to eliminate human error.” That’s where analytics can play a major role, he said. Better data can inform better player decision making, added Oliver. For example, through analytics a player can better understand when to come off a block. We need to learn from our failures and put things [i.e., data-based insights] together, he added. That goes for both predictive and prescriptive analytics.
“Technical skill will set you apart in the job market,” Bloodworth told the students. “To get into the profession you need to know what you’re doing and convince decision makers that you do,” added Hatman. Beyond mandatory networking, “you’re going to have to make a jump, take a leap.” An understanding of statistics and the necessary data bases is essential, Oliver remarked. “Know what questions to ask. Know the sport from the coach’s perspective.”