For the past two years, I have attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in early March. You've probably heard about it or seen the hashtag on Twitter when every sports writer flocks to Boston. But if you've never heard about it, it's basically a big convention where sports junkie/statistic nerd hybrids get together and talk about how advanced analytics can apply to sports. It's really cool (albeit pretty expensive) and you should go if you have the chance.
At the conference, sometimes I'll go and listen to a panel discuss some new statistic or new technology and walk away thinking "how the hell is that going to be used?" It's not that I think the innovative idea will be useless, it's just that I can't figure out exactly how it will be used. A lot of times it seems as though the idea or data is discovered first and then the actual application comes later. That seems to have been what happened with SportsVU technology. SportsVU is essentially a set of cameras that track the motion and location of each player and the basketball throughout the course of a game. SportsVU then provides a wealth of information, likely more information than anybody knows what to do with. According to this story from Crain's Cleveland Business, teams (such as the Cavs) have started to scratch the surface of SportsVU's potential and are putting the data to good use. The Cleveland Cavaliers had SportsVU cameras installed in Quicken Loans Arena last season and starting in the 2013-14 season, they will be in every NBA arena.
The day after I was at the Sloan conference in Boston this past March, I flew to Cleveland and covered three Cavs games. I noticed some new stats on the huge scoreboard above the court, but didn't think much of it at the time. It turns out that the Cavaliers were giving the fans at games just a little preview of what SportsVU had to offer.
"When Tristan Thompson appeared at the free-throw line during the first quarter of a March 6 matchup against the Utah Jazz, the Q-Tube showed the 22-year-old power forward's total dribbles, touches and the miles he ran two nights earlier against the New York Knicks. At the start of the Utah game, the scoreboard displayed the average miles each player in the starting lineup had compiled in games last season - at the time, a very slight edge went to Mr. Thompson over All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, 2.31 miles to 2.28."
Of course, the value of this data goes much deeper. The Cavs have already figured out how to utilize it on both the business and basketball sides of their operation.
"A lot of times when you're engaging a corporate sponsor, they want to own certain things, they want to own certain words," Mr. Bubolz said. "So we started playing matchup with words like durable, innovation, efficiency, speed, stamina, and as we find companies that are interested in words like that, you start to play the matchup game.
"You say, "All right, Company A that wants to own this word, here's a way you can own that word through all these channels - in-arena, social channels, television, radio," he continued. "You just start to create that true sponsor connection. These are all things that we think is really unique about it from a business standpoint."
As far as the business side goes, I assume that we're going to start seeing segments on Fox Sports Ohio broadcasts about the "Cavaliers endurance leaders, brought to you by Five Hour Energy" with a stat about how far each player has run that night, or something to that effect. That's pretty neat and it shows how the world of marketing and advertising is constantly finding innovation.
But Cavs fans are probably a lot more interested in how this data will help the basketball operations. How can SportsVU help the basketball minds in the Cavs' front office? That's not entirely clear. But there's no doubt that the possibility are virtually unlimited. In that same article, Cleveland's VP of Basketball Ops, David Griffin, let us know that the Cavs are committed to finding the hidden benefits of this new information.
Mr. Griffin said the Cavs will have three employees whose "sole job" is interpreting the data that comes from the cameras.
"It's boundless the value that you can get out of this," Mr. Griffin said. "You can just keep adding on."
What potential benefits could this technology provide? If you know the exact location, speed, and movement of every player on the court, you ought to be able to fine tune your schemes. You could figure out just how far Tristan Thompson can stray from his man to help on defense and still be able to recover if needed. You could find out at exactly what angle Anderson Varejao needs to set his screen in order to give Kyrie Irving the maximum separation in a pick and roll. You could optimize the team's spacing in half court sets (e.g: when we fail to maintain this certain floor balance, our offensive efficiency drops by X percent). And those are just some ideas that I came up with while sitting and eating breakfast this morning. If the Cavs have three full time employees working to interpret the data, you can be sure that they will come up with far more advanced and useful ways to look at it.
Last year, the team hired Benjamin Alamar, a highly regarded analytics consultant, professor and author who had worked for the Oklahoma City Thunder. For "competitive reasons," Mr. Griffin wouldn't disclose the size of the Cavs' beefed-up analytics department, but it's evident the organization, in the words of Mr. Carper, is going "all in" with the data.
"You need people to interpret and harvest the data," Mr. Carper said. "You have this incredible race car at your disposal, and you have to have people who can drive it."
This certainly isn't unique to the Cavs (as I said, every arena in the NBA will have this technology now), but it's exciting to see that the organization is embracing a deeper utilization of analytics. For a team in a less than desirable market such as Cleveland, the best way to get a leg up on the competition is by using new technology and innovative analytics, finding a new market inefficiency, and exploiting it. In the immortal words of Jesse Pinkman, "YEAH SCIENCE!"