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Even on analytics’ home court, gut feeling has its fans
Published March 16, 2009
The gathering of some of sports’ most devoted statistical acolytes at the recent Sports Analytics Conference at MIT’s Sloan School of Management produced a result that was predictable, though not necessarily statistically so. For all the influence that works like “Moneyball” and number crunchers like conference chairman/Sloan graduate and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have had on sports, they are no substitute for well-honed instinct.
“Every decision is wisdom and data-driven,” said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, during a session on basketball analytics. “We know stars win, but data won’t tell you how many it takes. Hiring coaches is almost a 100 percent qualitative decision, but we do look at numbers [that show] how much players change when they get a different coach.”
Others said they are moving toward a time when both tangible and intangible happenings on the court can and will be measured.
“I spend every day changing words to numbers and numbers to words,” said Dean Oliver, Denver Nuggets director of quantitative analysis. “My job is to measure it, even if it is an intangible.”
Cuban noted that while many statistical breakdowns match personnel combinations, few mention the officials. “There aren’t 10 guys on the court; there [are] 13,” he said. “So if you don’t include the other three, you aren’t doing your job.”
FAN-ING THE FLAMES: A panel discussion on “The Evolution of the Fan Experience” centered on the public’s disenchantment with some of pro sports.
“Most people don’t like players,” said Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager. “They resent the money [athletes make] and the legal entanglements some get into. My response is to make community service appearances for players something that isn’t optional. It’s not only a moral obligation, but it can be one of your greatest marketing tools.”
Former NBA coach turned ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said today’s NBA lacks heated rivalries. “There are very few rabid crowds,” Van Gundy said, “and the hugging [between players] that goes beyond the game makes me puke.”
Morey noted that CBS pays more for NCAA basketball tournament rights with far fewer games than the NBA receives from its local and national broadcast partners. So perhaps the season should be shortened?
“The drain on athletes is too much,” Burke said. “Shortening of the regular season [will] be a pressure point in the next CBA. Of course, wages would have to reflect that, so I’m not sure players would share our enthusiasm.”
NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said the league had already rejected a reduced schedule. “We found no evidence that shortening the season would have any positive effect on attendance or TV ratings,” he said. “We haven’t seen any data that indicates it would make any more sense than shortening the window for a movie release.”
RECESSION REDUX: While only one panel dealt directly with the gloomy economy, nearly every panelist commented on the recession.
“The next couple of years are not going to be about growth,” said David Baxter, president of Adidas’ sports licensed division, which has on-field rights with the NBA, NFL and the NHL. “It will be about finding ways to be a better business so we can navigate through this. For the time being, it isn’t as much about growth as it is maintaining, stabilizing and keeping the customers you have.”
Lou DePaoli, Pittsburgh Pirates executive vice president and CMO, has to market not only in the face of a recession, but also for a team without a winning season since 1992. One recent move was slashing the team’s ad budget to finance a bevy of new hires: 26 in ticket and corporate sales since late last year.
“Their ROI can be tracked easily,” DePaoli said. “It’s a really difficult time for us to tell someone we are a great branding play.”
At the other end of the spectrum are the Washington Capitals, who have seen merchandise sales increase 42 percent and ticket sales increase 32 percent this season, to the point that they may come close to selling out on a season-ticket basis next year. CMO Tim McDermott said even before the team’s recent rise in the standings he had converted more than half of the team’s media budget to digital. “What we are selling is hope, passion, community and escape. In today’s economy, those are all more important than ever,” McDermott said.
Roger Brinner, Parthenon Group chief economist, cited consumer spending data to support a contention that when times get tough, people buy tickets. His data showed that while spending on most sports-related goods and services has decreased during down economic cycles over the past 40 years, spectator-sports tickets and movie spending have increased. That includes the cycles of the 1980s, 1990s, post-9/11 and the current economic malaise.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: Industry execs lashed out at the hint of oversight, if not outright regulation, from Congress, which lately has been bashing sports marketing as a symbol of corporate excess on par with private aviation.
“When you hear Congress opining on what is good business and what isn’t,” said Kraft Sports Group President and COO Jonathan Kraft, “you go the other way.”
Boston Celtics President Rich Gotham acknowledged that while he has been scrutinizing the team’s marketing expenses more than ever, “I’m just happy we don’t have a senator or a congressman telling us what to spend when it comes to marketing.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com.