Math, statistics, and the beautiful game: a recap of the Fields Institute and Fields-CQAM 2018 Sports Analytics Workshop from an attendee’s perspective by Mark Schrutt
This past week, May 24 and 25, I was honored to be a guest at inaugural Fields Sports Analytics Workshop at UofT’s Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. The event was a rare opportunity to combine two of my (and many people’s) favorite things – data analytics and sports! The event brought together of speakers from the world of academia and athletics, as suprisingly to many the two go hand in hand when analyzing performance, ranking athletes and teams, probability and margin of victory (or – no coin toss here, but a loss if it goes the other way).
Luke Bornn of the Sacramento Kings discussed his team’s approach to identifying and defending set plays that involve the likes of Steph Curry and the Rocket’s James Hardin. Brian Macdonald, Florida Panthers, led a great discussion about analyzing schedules in preparation of its variable ticket pricing for the upcoming season. Stathlete’s Meghan Chayka talked about raising the level of analytics in women’s hockey. I was proud to hear about how Justin Detlor’s team from Canadian Tire is working to improve Canada’s performance at the Olympics in our drive to ‘Own the Podium’. There were panel discussions that included great insights from Devin Pleuler of Toronto FC and Ben Baumer, who went from the New York Mets to Smith College.
Sports analytics is evolving. You just have to listen to sports talk shows, look at ESPN.com or Nate Silver’s 538, or watch the Cup on CBC, to understand the prominence that statistics and numbers have in shaping the industry. That being said, more dollars appear to be currently flowing to the business side of analytics (attendance, sponsorships) than the player side of the equation (positioning, swings at the ball, puck procession). Some sports are still picking off low-hanging fruit (NASCAR) while others are trying to figure out the last 2% -3% (baseball). Yet to me, there should be more than enough opportunity for the two sides of the house to work together (or even live together). Better players mean better records and should mean better attendance and revenue. In addition, one thing I heard a number of times that the data and insights being driven by the analytics teams are used mostly to justify decisions that have already been made in the mind of management (and when management’s gut tells them something different, the data is put to the sideline). This mindset doesn’t just permeate but is far too prevalent in corporate boardrooms here in Canada. Leaders need to use data and insight to inform and shape decisions, identify opportunities and risk, and gain the competitive advantage.