As part of my research for a sascom magazine article about how sports teams use analytics to hone performance and win games, I interviewed Jeff Ma, the former MIT student who inspired the New York Times best-seller Bringing Down the House and the movie 21. Ma now uses his analytic talents consulting for professional sports teams – including the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Francisco 49ers – and as founder of Citizen Sports, a digital sports media business.
What do you offer your sports consulting clients that they can’t get from traditional scouting methods?
Ma: Statistics offers a dispassionate way of evaluating athletic talent. Numbers can’t measure heart – only people can do that - but stats can reveal a player’s true ability.
For example, our models rank college basketball players for the NBA draft by looking purely at their college stats, and there have been cases where big-name college players didn’t rank well according to our model. These players may have set scoring records in college, but when you dug deeper into the numbers you’d see that they were inefficient scorers who took 30 shots to score 30 points and were weak on defense.
What are the three biggest challenges you face in selling the value of analytics to potential sports team clients?Ma: The first challenge is inertia. Teams are resistant to change. The second challenge is that some people just don’t like numbers. The first time I met Jerry West, he said he hated stats. But as we talked further, it came out that what he really hated was the way stats are sometimes used. Like in the example I just mentioned, a basketball player may score 30 points in a game, but if that player takes 30 shots to do it and turns the ball over repeatedly, 30 points scored doesn’t tell the whole story. The third challenge is a lack of resources to support it. Teams have to have the right people to do analysis and get at the real picture behind the numbers.
How have you seen the use of analytics by fans change in the last few years?
Ma: It’s grown dramatically. One of the biggest things the information age has done is give fans access to data and a platform to talk about the research they’re doing. Now they can write on blogs, fan pages and Web sites devoted completely to sports or their specific sports teams, so they don’t have to go through traditional major media to get their ideas or work heard.
Do you agree that analytics is more important in sports now than ever before, and if so, why?
Ma: Absolutely. In the current economy, every team in every league is under enormous pressure to win games and make profits. Analytics helps organizations get the most they can out of limited resources, increase efficiency and make better decisions.
At the same time, social media has changed the access people have to their teams, and organizations have to be smarter about the way they do business in this new environment. If they’re to profit from new, nontraditional revenue streams, teams need to use analytics to better understand their customers – who’s participating in social media and how to market to different segments of their fan base.