Shane Battier, retired National Basketball Association champion, was recently named the director of basketball operations and analytics for the Miami Heat. A player transitioning to the front office in sports is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the last word — analytics — in his new title that is noteworthy. In the past, a statistics major who never wore an NBA uniform filled that type of role. Now, an analytically minded former player is mining the spreadsheets for game-changing insights. Battier’s new position symbolizes a watershed moment in the sports data revolution. Or, as Dave Cameron, managing editor of FanGraphs, a baseball statistics website, said, “Now the jocks are becoming the nerds.”1
Analytics in sports was not always accepted and embraced. Over the past 15 years, however, pioneering general managers — like Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s baseball team, whose analytical approach to team building with undervalued players was famously chronicled in The New York Times best-selling book and film Moneyball; Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets, who helped usher in the 3-point shooting revolution in the NBA; and Theo Epstein, who led both the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs baseball teams to World Series championships after decades-long droughts — introduced scientifically based approaches to team building. But they faced skepticism from the “old school”: a group of players, coaches, scouts, and executives who were successful without advanced metrics. Perhaps the most extreme voice was NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who once asserted, “Analytics don’t work at all. It’s just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent.”2
Barkley and other naysayers are being proved wrong. Teams on all levels — professional, college, and even high school — are using data to construct rosters, develop game plans, and improve athletes’ health and wellness. Because of its effectiveness, use of analytics is expanding beyond the early-adopting sports of baseball and basketball to football, hockey, soccer, tennis, golf, and mixed martial arts. Analytics has also crossed over into the business side of sports organizations, helping executives operate more efficiently and drive more ticket, sponsorship, and merchandise revenue.
1.I. McMahan, “Eight things we learned from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference,” Sports Illustrated, March 8, 2017, www.si.com.
2.B. Golliver, “TNT’s Charles Barkley rants about analytics, jabs Rockets GM,” Sports Illustrated, Feb. 11, 2015, www.si.com.
3.T. Davenport, “What businesses can learn from sports analytics,” MIT Sloan Management Review, June 3, 2014, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.
4.N. Henke, J. Bughin, M. Chui, J. Manyika, T. Saleh, B. Wiseman, and G. Sethupathy, “The age of analytics: competing in a data-driven world,” McKinsey Global Institute, December 2016, www.mckinsey.com.
5.B. Alamar, “Sports Analytics: A Guide for Coaches, Managers, and Other Decision Makers” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).
6.R. Young, “Russell Westbrook caps historic season with MVP award,” ESPN, June 27, 2017, www.espn.com.