The Case Against Big Data In Sports

University of Miami professor Robert Plant is starting to wonder if big data is ruining sports. He talks with host Scott Simon about how crunching the numbers is changing — and has already changed — the games we love to watch.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Players and coaches always look for an edge in sports - conditioning, nutrition, banned substances, and that now includes big data, for using sports statistics can maybe boost a team's performance. But is there such a thing as too much information? Robert Plant from the University of Miami joins us now. He teaches tech strategy there. Thanks very much for being with us.

ROBERT PLANT: Oh. it's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: So those of us who are fans watch a game and we see a game. What do you see knowing what you do about big data?

PLANT: I see data everywhere. There's data on every game, every player, every coach, and I think it's playing a more and more important role in every decision that's made on the field or on the water no matter where an athlete is performing.

SIMON: You've got a great basketball team down there in Miami and I read something you wrote in which you said that there are half a dozen cameras hanging up over a game.

PLANT: Yes, that's correct. They have three cameras on each side and they're taking 25 frames a second in real time and that information is then crunched and analyzed and passed back to the coaches on the side of the field and then they can analyze player movements; see who's running, running on the ball, up the ball, how far they've ran, and look at positions.

SIMON: Does this confer any kind of advantage on a team with more resources?

PLANT: I think it does. I'm a fan of following the America's Cup, and I think what we saw at the end of the America's Cup when Oracle came back from 8-1 down, and they reputedly spend about $50 million in that last week.

SIMON: I mean, what do they do? How does that help a racing vessel?

PLANT: Well, they had sensors all over the boat. I mean, they had 3,000 variables running per second on 300 sensors on the boat. They were looking at the stresses on the ropes, and helping them configure the boat in real time and then they could analyze it overnight, redesign the boat, put in new foils, dagger boards and so on, and that is an expensive business.

SIMON: I've just been sitting here thinking, you know, of a cheer: Two, four, six, eight, our analytics are mighty great. Doesn't get a lot of people to join in, in the stands.

PLANT: No, it doesn't, I think, but fans are now starting to tune into this themselves. There's a lot of companies providing armchair data, so fans are starting to look at data that is new to them. So they're going OK, a pitcher's coming up and he normally pitches a fastball and this is a lefty coming up to bat and, you know, what's going to happen? And they can run the analytics on that.

SIMON: Does this make the front office more important than the players on the field?

PLANT: I think to some degree, business is a sport and sport is business. I think what's happening is with the huge amounts of investment in sport today we're really seeing the need for more a determinant return on our investment as a manager or as an owner.

SIMON: Robert Plant is a professor in the School of Business at the University of Miami. Thanks so much.

PLANT: Thank you very much.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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