Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sports Analytics is Not a Strategy

As I travel towards the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference I  am pondering what sports analtyics actually is. Part of that thinking is spurred by the book Competing on Analytics by Davenport and Harris. One of the first points that Davenport and Harris make is that analytics is not a strategy in and of itself, but rather a tool that should be used to support the "core competency" of an organization. This point is, I believe, one of the core misunderstandings of what it means for a team to start using analytics. There seems to be an impression that statistical analysis (one tool of sports analytics) is a strategy that dictates a certain style of play and/or a certain type of player.

The legendary book Moneyball by Michael Lewis served sports analytics extremely well in detailing how a team that competes with analytics can prosper. The book also, however, reinforced the impression that analytics had a unique purpose - unearth undervalued players and find areas of in

game strategy for which the excepted wisdom was not entirely correct. While this is certainly a viable use of analytics, it is hardly the unique or, for some teams, even the most productive use. The A's employed analytics in this manner because it fit with their core competency: winning with a low payroll. It was the strategic goal of the organization that determined how to best use analytics, instead of analytics dictating a strategy to the team.

Teams have their own unique core competencies and areas in which they choose to have as strengths. In the corporate world, Walmart competes on price so they utilize analytics to better manage their inventory. In the NFL, the Ravens have traditionally competed on elite level defense and evaluation of collegiate talent. Should the Ravens choose to use analytics to help provide a competetive edge, then their initial focus should principally be in support of these functions, which is fundamentally different from how the Saints or Colts might choose to best deploy their analytic assets.

At this stage in the growth of sports analytics, it is incumbent on the analysts to communicate to team executives, that analytics is not about identifying the "best" strategy or players, but rather to work within the core competency of the team and help push that forward. For the most part however, we as analysts have done little to demonstrate the value of analytics beyond identifying new metrics to rank teams and/or players. While I am certainly guilty of this, and to a large degree it has been necessary, I believe that we need to start pushing the discipline beyond this and demonstrate to teams how analytics can be used to help make better decisions, develop a culture of evidence and uniquely support the core competency of each team.

Analysts working for teams that place a high value on their player development function should have a very different focus than one that focuses on finding value in free agent markets. Having had the privilege to work with a variety of talented executives, every analyst should understand that these leaders understand their sport at a truly elite level and have developed long term strategies that they believe in. When an analyst can demonstrate how a strong analytics program can function as a tool to insure that the tactics used to support those strategies are the ones with the highest probability of success, then they will maximize their value to the team.

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