The breakthrough of data and analytics in sports have changed the way teams build their teams, evaluate players as well as changing the ways that athletes stay healthy. These changes have impacted sports in ways that have transformed them almost completely.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Matthew Waite has been in the middle of the analytic breakthrough within sports. Waite created a course at Nebraska focused on sports data and analytics after the creation of the College of Journalism’s sports media and communications major in 2017. Waite said he has put serious work into the class and yet admitted that the experience has been more fun than he could imagine.
“Oh it is a ton of fun,” Waite said. “I didn’t really expect to have this much fun to be honest, but it has been a lot of fun opening a lot of eyes just because I don’t think a lot of people think of sports as being so full of data that can teach you a lot.”
One student who had his eyes opened during Waite’s sports data course is senior Sawyer Belair, who took more data courses offered by Waite. He also worked with him to learn more about the ways that data impacts sports as well as other aspects of life.
“I started out here as a physics major so coming into journalism I was honestly just overwhelmed by the lack of math in it all,” Belair said. “Data journalism really allowed me to find a middle ground where I could still take advantage of the edge of having those math skills.”
New sites which utilize the slew of stats at their disposal have grown over the years and provided data hungry sports fans with a place to look for all the stats they could want. Sites like Baseball Savant, Statmuse, Sports Reference and many others have found a massive niche in the market of delivering data to fans who want to dig deeper.
For senior Journalism and English double-major Jason Han, these sites and the renaissance of data that have taken place in the world of sports has given fans a chance to dive even deeper into their favorite teams and players.
“The introduction of statistics into sports is really nothing new,” Han said. “We have been tallying stats from players forever. The change is that we have invested and expanded the infrastructure for understanding sports in this way that we do now.”
While many have embraced the new age of advanced stats, there are others who have pushed back on the changes that advanced statistics has brought to the sports they watch. Waite said that change in sport suffers from the same slow process that change in many other aspects of life take on.
“You are seeing sports undergo a similar revolution that society at large is going through right now,” Waite said. “There is an absolute hostility to changing the way that things are done because change is scary when your paycheck hangs on that.”
Known as the father of analytics in baseball, Bill James, released a book on his new ideology on how baseball teams should operate and evaluate players. His book was released in 1985 and yet Waite said it took until the turn of the century to see it come to fruition on the baseball diamond. That was in the form of the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane, captured in the film, “Moneyball.”
“Things change but because we are talking about a human endeavor they will change slowly,” Waite said. “It takes a Billy Beane character in a situation like Oakland where ownership didn’t care and there wasn’t any money to look at a situation and try to do it differently.”
These major changes have not only impacted baseball, but the rest of the sporting world. A major change in basketball is the massive shift from mid-range shots and isolation plays as advanced stats have revealed a slew of evidence to show that this old model of offense is inefficient and ineffective.
“It is very clear that analytics have had a heavy impact on sports,” Belair said. “You don’t see teams shooting mid-range shots and other methods of offense that had been used for some time and there was a real shift in teams shooting more three-point shots due to the data showing the efficiency change.”
This infusion of new data and statistics into sports has not only provided benefits for fans and the teams that employ this data but to the media journalists that cover them as well. It has allowed journalists to dive into projects and pieces using the tool of advanced stats to bring even more to their stories in ways that show a more clear picture for the readers.
“Data is really a tool much like any other that is there to be utilized,” Han said. “It is meant to assist in telling the compelling pieces that journalists write and I find it to be generally very valuable for journalists to be able to integrate the data into their work.”
While the progression of sports into the world of data can be greatly beneficial to many, it also can sometimes be misleading if the reader does not have an understanding of how to read the statistics and how they function. A large portion of data comes from formulas which are created by humans who measure data and put together formulas and other pieces of data that are not always easy to comprehend.
“I think the most important thing for analysts to realize and sports fans to realize is yes these metrics exist but they are formula driven and the data has to come from somewhere,” Waite said. “Anytime a decision is made about what to capture it is an opinion that is being fostered by someone who decides what to track and how to weigh it all.”
It is hard to tell where sports will go as data and advanced statistics continue to develop and move the world of sports forward but it is safe to say that data and advanced analytics aren’t going anywhere soon in the world of sports.