Football

Decision Data and the Art of Translation

Using analytics in sports in not a new concept, but data must be translated to be useful in decision making


by Kerry Carter, VP Football Operations

The convergence of sports and technology, along with the increased availability of information, has driven the appetite of the industry for data and analytics in many forms. Entire industries such as fan engagement, fantasy sports, and sports analysis now occupy a valuable space as foundational elements of the sports industry landscape.  

Data has long been the focus of the change in baseball as WAR (Wins Above Replacement), and many other acronyms have become the weapons of choice in arguments over who the best teams, players or franchises are. In the NBA, companies like Second Spectrum, and MOCAP Analytics, with their work with the Golden State Warriors, have been catalysts for a new perspective on efficiency, shot choice, and have shaped the modern attitude towards the value of players who excel at 3-point shooting. Football Outsiders have long touted their defensive metric of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), to calculate a team’s effectiveness in comparison to the rest of the NFL in specific situations.  

Most recently, we saw a great example of data analytics fueling decisions on display when the Philadelphia Eagles matched up against the New England Patriots in Superbowl LII. Using data from Championship Analytics, the Eagles decided to attempt multiple crucial 4th-down situations that lead to an eventual victory. 

The success of these companies is evidence that the increased accessibility of data now gives us the ability to understand minute details that contribute more to the overall outcome of competitive sports than previously recognized. 

Data on its own is much like crude oil, valuable but not yet in a usable form for mass consumption. To derive the most value to inform decisions data sources need to be: 

  1. Massive
  2. Very Accurate
  3. Correctly processed 
  4. Collected from diverse sources 

The companies that can mine data and efficiently refine it into understanding and application will be the leaders in this industry.  

Using analytics in sports in not a new concept, but the popularity and availability of data has brought more focus to the market along with a rush of new companies promising to deliver data that offers stakeholders a winning edge. 

In football, games are determined by specific moments. These moments cannot be anticipated so teams must approach each play as though it has the potential to decide the result of the game. By this reasoning, decision making at each juncture of the game is critical. Every yard matters and looking for ways to gain or prevent those yards is imperative to a winning strategy. 

A coach's job is centered around decision making, and not just week to week during the season but from everything to free agency, the draft, player evaluation and playing time in general. Coaches use data to operate with confidence and limit hesitation, allowing them to justify their decisions and strengthen that gut instinct they have honed from years of experience  

Companies in the industry have focused on amassing copious amounts of data but few have found a way to translate this data into actionable information that supports decision making. A key piece of this approach is taking complex information from various sources and distilling it down to the most important components.  

To do this, you must have a clear understanding the guiding philosophy of an organization, along with the aspirations that are most important to the coach and the biggest challenges as it relates to execution. The most important aspect of this engagement is clear communication. It starts with listening to how a coach communicates, wants to be communicated to and how they would like to communicate with their athletes.  

Some coaches are very direct, some govern by fear, while others are inspirational and focus on communicating positive messages that accentuate their strengths rather than weaknesses to get the best from their athletes. 

I liken this to any business hiring a consultant to come in and improve their operations or implement a technology that will be utilized throughout the enterprise. The consultant must understand the business goals of the organization along with their capabilities and the processes that will help them achieve success. 

This takes time, effort and requires a level of understanding of the operations and motivations that are the foundation of every organization or team. It requires unique abilities to engage across departments, from the coaches, player performance, analysts, strength and conditioning, sports scientists, all the way up to the executive staff. To speak a common language across the organization, the ability to translate is essential. Additionally, it requires and understanding of what each group is trying to accomplish and how their roles exists independently and in parallel to the others. 

When thinking about the concept of translation, it is important to note that communication can take on many forms. Just as important as the information being shared is the format in which it is presented. Whether in Word, Excel, Powerpoint, or a custom designed platform with single sign on (SSO) authentication.  The key is to meet key stakeholders where they are most comfortable and able to receive the information while minimizing excess noise and distractions.  

Successful analysis requires more than fancy looking reports with a lot of data. Data is simply an input. The most important output should be the insights derived from the data that fuel the reports; the translation. You need to answer what the numbers mean to their team and what action should be taken to improve the most important metrics of the team. Once identified, there should be a clear and decisive action plan with several options to explore.  

Sports will continue to evolve and the individuals that embrace this evolution will be perceived as innovators. Coaches will always look for a winning edge, and with the increased understanding of the value of analytics as a prescriptive and actionable, it will continue to show up in new segments of the game. Whether in preparation for an upcoming game, real time metrics, or as a post-game and post season tool for review, data analytics has infiltrated the games we love. Part science and part art, the use of these resources will definitely fuel the future of sports as we know it…actually, it already does now.