Big Data: Not just for baseball anymore

Basketball - and soccer and hockey and even mixed martial arts - are catching up to baseball in the use of Big Data and analytics

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NBA analytics on display at the 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Image credit: MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Big Data, and the tools and analytics required to deal with it, are becoming a bigger and bigger part of just about every business these days, including professional sports. Baseball, I think even casual or non-fans know, has long been awash in statistics, from the traditional batting average and RBI to today’s more advanced statistics like VORP and WARP (don’t forget, Nate Silver first made his name with baseball analytics). Now, though, other sports are catching up, with the NBA a clear number two in the use of Big Data and analytics.

To see evidence of just how deep NBA teams are getting into Big Data, read the piece in Grantland this week on the use of the SportVU system. SportVU uses a number of cameras to record the geographical coordinates of every player movement during a game. These data can then be used by the teams to do advanced analytics. 

Fifteen NBA teams (half the league) currently pay $100,000 per year for the system. Each team is on its own to then take the data and do something with it. The Grantland piece focuses on the Toronto Raptors, who seem to be taking the system the furthest. So far, they have data on 140,000 plays and can create a video of any play, showing what each player on the court did and, more importantly, what each Raptor player should have been doing on the play, based on player tendencies and coaches expectations.

It’s pretty amazing stuff that goes way beyond even the use of sports analytics that many of us learned about in Moneyball. But the use of advanced analytics based on the growth of data available to teams is growing beyond just baseball and basketball. Most professional sports leagues are at least dipping their toes into the analytics waters, if not diving in head first.

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