4 Analytics Lessons From Professional Sports

Nate Silver, Michael Lewis, Mark Cuban and other sports luminaries share analytics advice you can apply to your business.
3. Master The Art Of Communications.

Marathe, the 49ers COO, entered the sports world when the legendary, late 49ers GM and head coach Bill Walsh hired him to develop an algorithm to calculate the value of football draft picks. That was in 2001, and mirroring the rise in analytics in sports over the last decade, Marathe rose in the team's ranks, eventually taking on salary-cap management, contract negotiations and all player personnel decisions.

The NFL hasn't been as advanced as MLB or the NBA in the use of analytics, Marathe said, so he had to work that much harder to communicate the value of the data-driven decisions. "It's threatening to people if they're not comfortable with analytics and some guy shows up with all these charts and graphs telling you why you need to do things differently," Marathe explained. "After five or six years, I realized that the analytical work that you do is less than 50% of the challenge. The hard part is communicating your analysis so people believe in it and embrace it."

[ How does pro basketball share its data? Read NBA Launches SAP Hana-Powered Basketball Statistics Site. ]

Getting buy-in from the owner, head coach and scouts, Marathe said, required him to constantly communicate and shape ideas so that they eventually became collective, group decisions and not just ideas from "the little Indian guy with the charts."

It's a lesson that aspiring analytics professionals in any industry must learn. Indeed, in InformationWeek's recent examination of "Top Big Data Analytics Masters Degrees," we found that courses on communicating with stakeholders are typically required and extensive.

4. Look For The Next Frontier.

The embrace of analytics isn't a once-and-done deal. The push for new measures and analyses in baseball didn't stop with the on-base percentage stat favored by Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, and it shouldn't stop with one or two hot stats in your industry.

Cuban, the maverick Dallas Mavericks owner, said basketball has "just scratched the surface" of data analyses. "We're looking to extend data capture not just in-game but also in practices and in training," Cuban said. "Unlike baseball, we have a much more difficult time developing talent, so we have to look at what can we do to gather more information" on up-and-coming players.

Another new application in basketball and other sports is in sports medicine. "It's not just for injury avoidance, but for optimal use of treatments," Cuban said. "We're doing genetic testing to determine what the best anti-inflammatories are so guys can play more minutes and play in more games."

In football, Marathe pointed to player endurance, injury prevention, player mental aptitude and in-game strategy as uncharted or nascent areas of data analysis. Another area is analysis of team chemistry, "making sure that the offensive side and the defensive side have complementary skill sets," he said. "Individually the offense and defense might be really good, but when you put them together, they might not mesh."

As Cuban observed, a city won't hold a parade for you after you rack up a really good year in business, but everyone is looking to boost performance and results. Use these pointers to improve your game.

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