Chris Pinner’s Nearest the Pin—Synergy’s recent launch in the U.S. got me wondering whether sports marketers closer to home could learn from America’s love for stats. My search for an answer unveiled some unexpected sources of inspiration and insight. This blog shares them and, in doing so, shows the answer to my question is a resounding “YES!”
Say the word “statistics” and memories of miserable maths lessons are what flood back for most of us. Yet today, U.S. sports fans and coaches love data. Broadcasters ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports and NBC Sports are feeding fans, via their websites, with a constant flow of facts and figures in every American sport going. The traditional Big Four – NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB – are perhaps the most stat-heavy sports on the planet.
So why are U.S. sports fans and coaches today so hungry for data? Perhaps the answer can be traced back to 1950, when physicist, astronomer, and chess master Professor Arpad E. Elo introduced a system to rank the world’s chess players. Elo’s approach has since been adopted and adapted by sports organisations, especially in the U.S. FiveThirtyEight, for example, uses it to predict future NFL performance. In brief, using analysis of past performance and a bit of maths, his system has been used and adapted to estimate and rank the future performance of players and teams, and in doing so has come to the attention of sports fans globally.
The power and popularity of Elo’s approach among fans lies in how it can arm them with data to help win debates with fellow fans, and potentially even cold hard cash through betting. DraftKings, which gives gamers (gamblers?) sports research before they ‘play,’ is both enormously popular and controversial in the U.S. Whatever you think of it, it may not be long before DraftKings is the latest U.S. to U.K. import. Subjectivity and gut instinct no longer rule fantasy transfer decisions and heated half-time debates.
The popularity of FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings is just one example of how the appetite for data among U.S. sports fans is being met. Closer to home, @AccentureRugby’s analysis of the RBS 6 Nations is an equally compelling case of how data is changing sport.
Snapshot from FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings
Player-turned-manager Billy Beane attracted criticism when he started using sabermetrics to make decisions on trades, rosters, and the like at the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Success ensued on the pitch to such an extent that in 2009 Sports Illustrated placed Beane in their Top 10 Sporting GMs/Executives of the Decade, and in 2011, Moneyball, with Brad Pitt playing Beane, hit the screens to critical acclaim.
Whether it be sabermetrics in baseball or mathematical modelling at Brentford FC or FC Midtjylland, data in coaching decisions is here to stay. Data has become integral to decision-making and debate. Why? In sport, data helps you win.
Data is integral to decision-making in business too. How many CEOs and CMOs do you think invest in multi-million £ or $ campaigns with no view on expected return on investment (ROI) vs. viable investment alternatives? To prove the point with data (I couldn’t help myself!), recent research from Millward Brown Vermeer’s Insights 2020 showed 51% of over-performing companies said “Insights & Analytics Leads the Business” vs. a 27% for global average. In business, data helps you win.
The lesson for sports marketers? Yes, you guessed it – data can help you win. Sports fans and coaches realised long ago that data can deliver success. The title of sports marketing’s answer to Billy Beane is still open to applications but – with such high financial gains to be made – it’s only a matter of time until the vacancy is filled.
Thanks to Nathaniel Howe Studios for the image.