Analytics in sports takes centre stage at U of T conference

TORONTO -

Analytics in professional sports are a fact of life nowadays, and if you don't like it, you might want to find a different line of work was one prominent message espoused at the University of Toronto on Friday.

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“The NHL is coming out with wide-ranging analytics, breakdown things in ways we've never seen before,” said former New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith at the fourth annual U of T Sports and Business Association Sports Industry Conference, which brought together a number of prominent voices on four different discussion panels.

“We are in an age of breaking down everything (and are) going to see more and more of a hunger for it from everywhere. For people rejecting it, they're going to get swept away, because it's not going away, it's here to stay,” said Smith, who has shifted into an analyst role with Sportsnet.

Smith seemed far more with the times than many current leading sporting executives.

Analytics have become a huge part of the landscape – the NBA has been making an increasing number of intriguing statistics available via its website and the NHL is slowly following suit; there are radio shows, podcasts and TV segments devoted to these “fancy numbers” and while everyone might be getting a bit carried away, there is definitely massive interest in the subject.

About 350 people attended the conference – nearly four times more than the initial turnout – and the Big Data and How We View Sports panel seemed to generate the most buzz on this day, perhaps not surprising, since the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, most recently held late last month, seems to grow more massive every year. The subject has rocketed from a cult obsession to a mainstream phenomenon.

The panel featured Smith, newly installed NBA head of analytics Jason Rosenfeld, Guardian soccer writer Richard Whittall, Bloomberg Sport's Alex Burwasser and New York Giants assistant general manager Kevin Abrams.

To provide an idea of just how much the sports world has changed, Smith mentioned how agents now point to analytics like Corsi and Fenwick when trying to sell the merits of one of their free agents to prospective teams. He also noted how nowadays, players are shown iPad videos of every shift after every period, in order to see what they are doing right or wrong.

For Abrams, the Toronto-born, long-time Giants assistant, in charge of the salary cap, team budget and contract negotiations, analytics continues to play a bigger role, but in the NFL, “we are still at a point where we are still 90% the eye test.

“Human vs. human. We will use analytics on what is quantifiable,” Abrams said, pointing specifically to historical analysis of traits and measures that have projected well over the years, a way of augmenting evaluations, seeing what has translated in the past.

NFL teams, like those in the other major leagues, have turned to outside help in order to better understand analytics.

“Australia is so far ahead on sports science (things such as player tracking and sleep analysis). We have done a lot of talking with these people. Aussie Rules Football has a lot of similarities to the NFL,” Abrams said.

“You have to go outside your league because nobody within the league talks to each other because we are all paranoid,” he said with a laugh.

Players can now get their sleep patterns analyzed and are increasingly monitored while on the field, though Abrams maintains nothing is forced “down their throats.”

ed nobody is trying to be Big Brother.

Meanwhile, Rosenfeld has only been on the job with the NBA for five months in a newly-created department that will soon get two more hires.

Its creation was a response to soaring demand from both franchises and fans for more information, said Rosenfeld, formerly head of analytics with the Charlotte Hornets (then the Bobcats).

“(The NBA is) investing heavily in analytics at head office to help the league make smarter decisions and to distribute (information) to fans and teams,” Rosenfeld said.

“There is a growing demand for analytics we are trying to satisfy the demand, it is very important to us.”

The trick is knowing how to read all of this new information properly.

The panel maintained that “no data is better than bad data” and said the teams that best figure out how to analyze it and use it to their benefit are the ones that will most gain an advantage from this onslaught of information.

FIRST RAPTORS OWNER WEIGHS IN

John Bitove, the original owner of the Raptors, was the keynote speaker at the conference.

Amongst other things, Bitove said the current team “is probably the best foundation the franchise has had in 20 years” and added that he believes when the Canadian dollar goes back up close to par with the American greenback, he thinks that Montreal and Vancouver will get expansion teams.

Bitove also maintained “It was hard coming to a hockey town - the media was against us - so we had to learn how to differentiate ourselves.”



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