At least in the United States, the analytics wave was led by baseball researchers, a no-brainer given that nearly every interaction in baseball can be assigned a statistic. Stat geeks, in general, have found that traditional statistics like batting average and earned run average aren't the best predictors of future performance. And their techniques are being applied to football, basketball, hockey and soccer.
Number-crunching can help teams choose the right players in the draft or trades, adjust in-game strategy, and even predict the likelihood of injuries.
Stat nuts have had to overcome intransigence in a sports world often resistant to technology. While sports teams will pour billions into enhancing the fan experience, they often won't make basic changes that could enhance the game. Major League Baseball finally allows video reviews of home runs and foul balls, but soccer referees still can't use instant replay to determine whether the ball went into the net -- even in the World Cup.
But the 1,500 attendees of the Sports Analytics Conference, naturally, are excited about the possibilities. Even Microsoft got in on the action, sponsoring the event and presenting a session about how business analytics can be applied to sports. A.C. Milan, for example, used Microsoft analytics software to predict injuries and optimize training, with the end result that it cut player injuries by two-thirds, use of medicine by 70%, and lost practice days by 43%, according to Microsoft business intelligence director Bruno Aziza.
Sports analytics still hasn't quite gone mainstream, Aziza says. It was hard to tell in Boston, though, given the star talent attracted by the sports analytics conference, including author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell, sportswriter Bill Simmons, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and NBA announcer Jeff Van Gundy.
Attendees included executives from many professional and major collage sports teams including the Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Denver Nuggets, Georgetown University, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Hornets, New England Revolution, New England Patriots, Orlando Magic, Penn State, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Diego Padres, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Tampa Bay Rays. Harvard University, ESPN, Nike and Google were also well represented.