ESPN.com has launched ESPN.com/Analytics, a new destination for all of ESPN’s analytics content powered by the company’s Stats & Information Group (SIG). The new section will be the home for ESPN’s Stats & Info blog and will complement and cross-promote the outstanding work of colleagues at FiveThirtyEight.com.
Front Row caught up with some key players in SIG to discuss how the Sports Analytics Team utilizes metrics and analysis to craft compelling storylines in sports.
Noel Nash, VP, ESPN Stats & Information Group
How do you think SIG helps set ESPN apart from other sports media companies?
Nash: No other company has a team like ours, dedicated to utilizing research and analytics to create unique and differentiated content. Vice President, Stats & Analytics Jeff Bennett has led research-related storytelling for 20-plus years at ESPN and has helped create best practices around sports analytics storytelling for the past decade.
What is the process of gathering information, and what are some of the challenges of gathering so much data?
Nash: The data space is ever-evolving, and the sports industry is dealing with “big data” for the first time thanks to new technologies around player tracking. This is all nascent technology, and there are many new businesses in this space, which can be a challenge. Beyond the data collection, our sports subject-matter experts utilize a variety of internal, proprietary tools and external businesses to flesh out the best notes, stats and trends.
Jeff Bennett, VP, Stats & Analytics ESPN
How does analytics elevate storytelling in sports?
Bennett: Sports Analytics is not about finding an interesting number through rigorous analysis and modeling. It is about communicating the complex as simply as possible in the language sports fans can understand.
Dr. Ben Alamar, Director of Sports Analytics, ESPN
Why is analytics so important in sports and sports coverage?
Alamar: As data sets grow larger in sports, teams and leagues have increasingly recognized the value that analytics can play in creating a competitive advantage. The Sports Analytics Team at ESPN exists to help provide fans the same kind of insight that coaches and general managers have.
Tony Moss, Senior Editor, ESPN Insider
How do you begin the process of starting with a stat and then telling a story around it?
Moss: Sports fans and readers often have a visceral reaction to what we see on the field. When those initial perceptions are not supported by the data, our teams have a lot of fun explaining why. We want to be able to settle some of those proverbial barroom sports debates through analytics. We also want to start some.
What has been the most surprising stat you’ve seen across all major sports recently?
Moss: As soon as the Vikings completed the Sam Bradford trade, our NFL team had KC Joyner examine the data behind how Bradford might fit into the Vikings offense, and the takeaway was “Hey, if you’re interested in going beyond the eye test, this guy actually does the things well that this team is trying to do.” It was a classic case of reality diverging from perception in a sports debate.