The best way to understand the growth of analytics in sports is, curiously, by examining the evolving rhetoric of its detractors. At the beginning, purveyors of the nascent advanced sports movement were bombarded with the classic “nerds in their mothers’ basements” zing also laid upon LARPers, bloggers and Trekkies. As it gained power, and became clear that intelligent professionals counted themselves among its adherents, the counter became that they were “nerds that watch spreadsheets, not the game”. While this has never been true, it has finally caught on that the same people sitting in front of spreadsheets are sports fanatics, more likely to watch two games in a day than none. Today the insults—which have always been a defense mechanism for those that feel threatened by analytics—have all but ceased. Sports analytics have gone mainstream.
The more boorish critics of analytics are fading away as they get called out on it and lose relevance. The savvier ones, correctly surmising that analytics are here to stay, have once again modified their tactics. Instead of arguing that analytics are inferior to gut evaluations and watching the players, they shout that analytics are ruining sports. That the things that make sports so wonderful—unpredictability, hustle, heart, underdogs, desire, luck—are being tossed aside.
They have a fair point.
For better or for worse, the increased emphasis on analytics is changing how we understand, experience and talk about sports. While it is certainly making player evaluations more accurate, could it be deemphasizing, quantifying and laying waste to all of the things that make fanhood such a unique experience? These are very worthwhile questions to ask.
As you’ve surely read elsewhere by now, the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, held last weekend, provides a gathering place for the sports analytics industry to come together. One of the 2,700 attendees was Andrew Sharp, a writer for SB Nation who describes his attendance of the conference thusly: “I’m here as a skeptic, and I’ll leave as a skeptic, but in the meantime my only goal is to figure out why exactly I’m skeptical.
In the long run, this sort of writing is incredibly illuminating. Like any movement, the advanced stats one will be stronger because of criticism, from both outside and from within. Considering almost everything else you will come across about Sloan reads as a fellating of analytics, something different is a needed breath of fresh air.
For all of the praise and attention Sharp’s story is receiving though, and despite some poignant observations, it generally misses the mark. Sharp’s piece is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Sloan Sports Conference and its audience, an exercise more in fantasy than reporting. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of sports analytics, but you are better off looking for them elsewhere.
Sharp’s essential premise—that the common fan doesn’t need to have an iota of an understanding of analytics—is spot on. As he writes, “sports don’t have to be REAL for anyone who’s not running a team” and “it really doesn’t matter if we can’t communicate analytics to the mainstream”. For the millions watching sports that will never have an impact on how they are played at the professional level, sports don’t have to be real. Sports can be whatever they want them to be. But the 2,700 people attending Sloan aren’t average fans, and suggesting anything of the sort belies what Sloan truly is: an industry trade show.
Sloan is a trade show for those looking to sell something to sports teams, whether that be a product or their services in the form of employment, and for sports teams looking to buy and hire. At $591.90 a pop plus room and travel expenses, how many average fans do you think are attending Sloan? Yes, average fans don’t need to understand analytics, but Sloan isn’t a conference for average fans. The About the conference page on the Sloan website explicitly says this.
“The conference goal is to provide a forum for industry professionals (executives and leading researchers) and students to discuss the increasing role of analytics in the global sports industry. MIT Sloan is dedicated to fostering growth and innovation in this arena, and the conference enriches opportunities for learning about the sports business world. The conference is open to anyone interested in sports.”
Sharp argues that the common fan doesn’t need to know analytics, but doesn’t seem to understand—or, if you are being less charitable, chooses not to understand—that he isn’t walking among common fans. Sloan doesn’t purport itself to be anything of the sort. He obviously gets this on some level because he writes that Sloan “feels something like the epicenter of the sports industry, full of outsiders who now have the inside track to running sports”, but he doesn’t follow that line of thought to the conclusion of “these people aren’t talking about or to common fans”. Which leads to my second problem with the piece: Sharp doesn’t actually talk to anybody.
Sharp’s piece falls somewhere in-between “reporting” and “opinion”, but those more strict journalism definitions have lost much of their power when it comes to the Internet. It doesn’t really matter what category this falls into because either way it seems odd to travel to Boston, shell out (or, more accurately, for SB Nation to shell out) for the conference, write 4,000 critical words about it and barely interact with a single person. For all the quotes in Sharp’s piece—17 of them mostly from panelists, presenters and reporters—only twice does he note having an actual conversation with an actual human being.
“‘It seems like it doubles in size every year,’ a friend tells me before we get started Friday.”
“‘ESPN is the best and worst thing to ever happen to this conference,’ someone tells me on Friday.”
Now, I’m sure Sharp talked to more people than his friend and “someone”, but evidently their words didn’t merit inclusion in the piece, unlike the words of Daryl Morey, John Skipper and Stan Van Gundy among others. After attending a “forum for industry professionals” and almost exclusively quoting industry professionals speaking to industry professionals, somehow he derides the whole thing as pushing analytics on a weary population of “normal” fans. It’s as if Sharp’s reporting is derived from Perks of Being a Wallflower, using “thought to not participate in life”.
Lambasting Sloan attendees for presenting a message to an audience that only exists in his head is merely disingenuous: the piece becomes truly problematic when Sharp insinuates that Sloan attendees hold some sort of prejudice.
“I look around a ballroom full of white males and write in my notes: ‘If this conference were a human, it would be wearing a blazer and button down with jeans and loafers (with no socks).’”
“The remarks above came during a panel called ‘The Changing Nature Of Ownership,’ during which two wealthy white men successfully conjure an alternate reality where NFL and NBA players didn’t make sweeping concessions across the board, making franchises more profitable now and more valuable later.”
“Look around the Sloan Analytics Conference and you see a group of thousands of over-educated smart people, most of whom are white males, congratulating each other on expertise and hitting on all the same themes, forging this echo chamber that’s supposedly rendering everyone else extinct.”
It is a shame that Sharp doesn’t go anywhere with this observation, because if he did he’d have a very intriguing piece. Why IS the analytics movement overwhelmingly white and male? Does it simply reflect the lack of diversity in front offices around sports, or is something else at work? Is the analytics movement somehow not inclusive to women or minorities? Is it a symptom of the larger “writing for free” problem that has been discussed at length this week? I certainly don’t have an answer, but Sharp doesn’t even have a question. He has noticed something worth exploring, but rather than saving it for another piece or investigating, he listens from the back of the room while lobbing potentially hurtful accusations.
Despite my misgivings above, the thing that jarred me out of a light, casual reading was Sharp’s naked hypocrisy. Two-thirds of the way through the piece, right as he begins to tie the various strands together into a coherent narrative, Sharp states, with not a shred of uncertainty, what makes sports fun and what should make the collective “we” excited about them.
“[Advanced rating systems] are more material for anyone who wants to win an argument. This is fine, but it doesn’t actually make sports more fun.”
“Would you rather be the fan that gets excited for Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown or the one who says he’s overrated when you look at the REAL numbers? Would you rather enjoy Kobe Bryant as a psychotic crunch-time killer or spend your days telling everyone what the REAL numbers say about Kobe in crunch time?”
Who is Sharp—or anybody else—to tell someone what it is that makes sports fun? Maybe you enjoy arguing over statistics; maybe you loved the AL MVP race precisely because of its clash of old vs new; maybe you remember so many of Kobe’s clutch misses that you don’t enjoy the “Kobe Bryant as a psychotic crunch-time killer” narrative.
Sharp proceeds to hammer this point home over the closing paragraphs.
“Everyone’s paying such close attention to sports that they forget what made sports worth paying attention to.”
“The best part about sports is you never really know, and that’s what keeps us watching.”
“Now and forever, everything you can’t quantify is what makes sports worth loving.”
Sharp doesn’t like that “the movement toward analytics gets sold as somehow more honest than what anyone else might see in sports”, which is a fair point. Those that count themselves a part of the analytics movement (which I include myself in, I think) do have a tendency to conflate the power of analytics to better understand sports and the “right” way to consume them. How is it then, that somebody so conscious of the over-important messaging of the analytics movement has the temerity to assert, no less than five times, what the best part of sports are and why we love them?
Sports are a huge, multi-faceted industry with literally billions of followers. There is no single right way to love them, or a single thing that makes them so great, much as there is no true Scotsman. To pronounce otherwise is to attempt to impose your view of fandom on others, an offense Sharp feels deeply yet freely commits.
The analytics movement needs more critical voices; that much is sure. It is wonderful that, as a self-admitted skeptic of analytics, Sharp was on hand to provide an alternative viewpoint of the Sloan Sports Conference. Normally, I would rather read this take than the tenth one about how cool missile-tracking cameras are.
Alas, in the final paragraph, there it is: “Now LeBron’s doing it again this year, especially the past month. He makes it all look effortless, and the best players in the world look helpless. Even his outrageous stats don’t really do justice to how completely he’s dominating the NBA right now. Nothing does if you aren’t watching” (emphasis mine).
If only you nerds would take your eyes off your spreadsheets and watch the game.