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Use of analytics in sports media becomes contentious

Analytics are gaining a high profile in sports media, but some fans and commentators say the stats just aren't what they're looking for.

Following this year's Super Bowl, commentators all over the country and fans online were sure Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll made the wrong call when he decided to call a pass play instead of a run play in the game's final seconds. The pass was then intercepted and his team lost.

But Ben Alamar, director of production analytics at ESPN, said, on reviewing historic data, the probability of throwing an interception from that position on the field was close to 0%. For him, this knowledge changes the narrative from being about a bad play call by Carroll, to a great play on the field by Malcolm Butler, the New England Patriots player who made the interception.

We're serving fans much better if we look to the data to find the real story.
Ben Alamardirector of analytics, ESPN

"Everyone who's in an argument looks for the data that supports what they think," Alamar said. "We're serving fans much better if we look to the data to find the real story."

Sports fans have likely noticed something new during broadcasts and media coverage of games in the last couple of years: Numbers are everywhere. Sports fans have always been interested in statistics, but the depth of analytics conducted and the penetration of analyses has increased substantially, which raises the question: Who exactly cares about data analytics in sports?

Media companies that have moved to make statistical analyses a bigger part of their offerings have waded into unexpectedly contentious waters. Some media entities, such as Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com, stake their claim on telling new stories through data. At the same time, other fans and commentators have pushed back against the use of new statistics, which they either don't understand or view as limited in value.

All of this was debated at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, hosted by MIT and ESPN in Boston. Media companies have never been better positioned to deliver in-depth statistics to their audiences, but the question of whether the typical fan is interested in advanced analytics in sports is up for grabs.

"Every other industry in the world is applying analytics to get that [figurative] extra half percent," said Brian Burke, founder of Advanced Football Statistics. "The only billion-dollar industries that are holding analytics at arm's length are sports."

Putting a number on a game play or an athlete's performance can give it context, Burke said. In the case of sports broadcasts, doing so can help fans understand how significant a game is or inform debates about the relative value of specific players.

On the other hand, quantifying everything can kill much of the suspense of a situation, which is one of the primary draws of sports. For example, Burke said he's analyzed data from NFL games and found that, in most contests, the probability of the trailing team coming from behind to win eventually draws near zero, often by early in the third quarter. When analyzing NBA data, he found that usually you can accurately predict which teams will make the playoffs by January, even though the regular season doesn't officially end until April.

For Alamar, presenting fans with the right statistics at the right time is key. It wouldn't make sense to tell fans during a broadcast of a football game that the trailing team only has a 0.5% chance of winning in the third quarter. But if that team does pull off the comeback, it might be relevant to reflect on the improbability of their win after the game. He said it's about making sure you tell the right story.

Ultimately what may work best is simply giving fans access to data and letting them use it as they like. This is the approach the NBA takes. The league's commissioner, Adam Silver, said during a panel discussion that the league works with SAP to organize and visualize statistics from every game on its website. All the data is totally accessible for fans.

Silver said some fans are really into data analytics in sports and manipulating data fields and crafting their own player comparisons, while others aren't as interested. What matters is giving the fans the option.

"We said, 'Let's make it available.' It creates a lot more engagement," Silver said.

Next Steps

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