Pat Riley, when at the helm with the New York Knicks in the 1990s, tracked some very particular stats -- contested shots, rebounding effort, shot deflections, 50-50 balls (rebounds that could go to either team), hustle plays and more -- on slips of paper. He collected the scraps every quarter, and these compiled stats were used to make adjustments during quarter breaks.
Obviously, with the surge in proprietary data like Synergy, Vantage and SportVu, NBA teams have access to more than just the number of hustle plays scrawled a slip of paper during halftime.
TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
That story, relayed by during the Sloan panel "SAP, the 49ers, and the NBA: New Technology to Drive Fan Engagement and Team Performance," by Steve Hellmuth, NBA Entertainment's Executive Vice President for Operations and Technology, shows how far the NBA has come in real-time data analysis, especially relative to the league’s peers.
The NFL, according to one of the panelists -- Paraag Marathe, the COO of the San Francisco 49ers -- has a strict anti-technology policy during games. Coaches can’t even have a calculator with them. Seriously, pencil and paper only.
In this respect, the NBA is light years ahead. NBA teams have been using real-time analytics for years and use advanced figures during games to make adjustments on the fly.
Similarly, the NBA has given fans ability to access advanced data easily.
Why does the league want to embrace analytics? At the end of the day, every league wants to reach its fans and grow its fan bases -- to get casual fans from their couch to the arena, to get fans in the arena to watch the action on the court rather than getting distracted their phones, to get interested fans more interested.
To make fans more intelligent consumers of the game, the NBA is educating them and giving them tools to educate themselves.
A few years ago, the NBA started its StatsCube project. The goal at the time was to fill a database with NBA statistics, give access to every team and try to level the playing field. Last season, the league put a front end on it and gave access to the media. This season, on the advice of deputy commissioner Adam Silver, the tool is publicly available at NBA.com/stats.
Thanks to SAP and the company’s computing platform, HANA, millions of fans can now access similar analytics that teams have been seeing for years. One example of how quickly HANA churns out data: SAP's Kijoon Lee said one airline used HANA to turn its "live" ticket-pricing process from 12-hour ordeals into one-second queries.
Just think: No more bar bets based on just an eyeball test. Want to know where LeBron took most of his shots in February? Look for yourself.
SAP has also partnered with the NBA to give fans great in-arena experiences. Staring at your mobile phone during a game might make you less engaged if you’re browsing Facebook, but what if you could immediately watch the last play on your phone? The panelists applauded Barclays Center's use of mobile video to keep fans plugged into their devices and the game simultaneously.
Video is poised to be the next big wave of fan engagement. Arenas are the first step, and NBA.com/stats plans to integrate video soon. Looking at a shot distribution chart is one thing, but watching videos might tell an entirely different story.
As technology improves, leagues, teams and fans will just have access to more and more information -- and they’ll get it even more quickly.