Though athletic games are as low tech as activities go, the world that surrounds them is on the opposite end of that technological spectrum. Sports business is catching up with other corporate entities in their uses of technology to run their organization and keep athletes at peak performance. The challenge of harnessing information to organize a team has existed for decades. The early years of organized sports honed the art of plotting a travel plan that was both cost effective and less draining on the players. The middling years were spent capturing statistical data to help coaches and scouts assess players using more than just the naked eye. Recent decades have been about pouring that gathered information into databases which automates statistical analysis. With that time freed up, organizations focus on revenue generating projects like marketing the game and team merchandise to fans. Understanding technology – at least at a high-level – is paramount for a person working towards a career in sports business.
Utilizing a Database Management System (DBMS) is no longer optional for the modern day professional or collegiate team. This piece of software stores data of any sort in an organized manner for quick reference and long term care. Gone are the days of paper files on each player containing last year’s batting average and latest contract status. The wealth of knowledge about athletes is too immense and changes too quickly to store in this fashion any longer. A database allows the organization to document each player’s core information – name, birth date, SSN, height, weight, address, phone number – into a main document (i.e. database table). It then allows the team to create other linked documents each containing a specific type of information on that player. One may contain their year-by-year statistical data while another may house game-by-game stats or even pitch-by-pitch results. Other database tables are used to store contract data including years remaining, no trade clause status and roster bonus dates. Organizations likely store a separate document on injury history along with noting players that are no longer on their roster. Off-the-field employees – coaching staff, front office personnel and scouts – also require database tracking so salaries, assigned scouting regions and coaching areas of focus are documented. The knowledge of database management systems – like Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server and IBM DB2 – and tools, like PL/SQL and ETL Software that support them now allows computer savvy professionals to make a contribution in the sports industry.
The use of statistics in sports is not new. But the role of advanced statistical analysis has grown tremendously within the past decade. Stats have always been important in the realm of sports because it is the best tool – in conjunction with the naked eye – to identify players who positively impact the game. But past decades focused on scouting reports first and foremost, using stats to help validate and justify personnel decisions. The new era of sports gives stat heads a chair at the adult table instead of being seated in the corner with the little kids table and the crying toddler. Moneyball – a 2003 book by Michael Lewis – jump started the advanced stats craze in baseball by taking a hard look at the statistical-based methodology utilized by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. And STATS LLC leads a growing field of companies that support professional and amateur athletic clubs with data sets, trends and other reporting to aid decision making. Recently, Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery traveled to STATS offices to take an in-depth look at their operations once again proving its acceptance by the leagues. The growing trend of stats in sports is also confirmed by attendance to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a forum used to discuss the increased usage of numbers and data in sports. What started as a 175 attendee conference on the MIT campus in 2007 has now ballooned into well over 2000 visitors in 2012 with another 200 plus on the waitlist. Statistical savants have finally found a way to apply their love of math and numbers analysis to something other than the corporate and academic worlds. In what other decade would someone like Michael Zarren become an Assistant General Manager of the Boston Celtics? He is basketball’s leader in advanced stat usage and now sits beside Danny Ainge counseling him on everything from draft picks and free agent signings to trades and contract negotiations. Advanced statistical analysis is fully embedded in sports and understanding its application will now take you farther than ever before.
At first glance, arranging road game travel feels like an overwhelming mess of complicated air travel bookings and first class hotel searches for large rosters and their support staff. And the amount of travel is daunting; professional baseball teams play 81 road games a year and NBA and NHL teams are away from home 41 games a season. While leagues create schedules to make team travel less of a grind, it’s still no easy feat to plan a season’s worth of flights, hotels, bus rentals and meals. Chartered planes have removed the complications of using commercial flights for team travel. But organizations still have dedicated employees that utilize powerful software to plot flight schedules ensuring teams arrive early enough before games start and leave cities in time to get to the next stop. While flight booking is somewhat easier than in years past, hotels and ground transportation is no less complex than in prior decades. High end hotels are booked at each stop which is especially challenging for weekends, holidays and in smaller cities where hotel choices are limited. And coach buses must be chartered to get players to-and-from the airport and to-and-from the arena. While maps, phone books and telephones were the old school tools used to make road travel happen, team schedulers now use travel software, email and other online tools to research airports, hotels and ground travel options. Harnessing available information before making final decisions is necessary to keep athletes and coaches happy and use the team’s travel budget efficiently.
Without adequate communication and collaboration tools, organizational goals – meant to be singularly focused – are subdivided. While the games themselves have gone largely unchanged since their inceptions, everything that surrounds them feels much more complicated. Teams have access to more standardized data than ever and the ability to share it through all tiers of the organization is vital to winning. Front office management uses the data to make decisions on the long term health of the team while coaches study it as they fill out their daily starting lineup cards. Players use the numbers and corresponding video to analyze their own performance and prepare for their next opponents. The ability to share this information in a variety of ways is a necessity; team intranets keep the information secure and allow individuals to access the data from their laptop, tablet or smart phone. Communication amongst team employees is also important as the media probes deeper than ever for stories that cause distractions to on-the-field play. Key team spokesmen – owners, general managers, head coaches and media liaisons – are connected seemingly 24/7; collaboration software like email, instant message chat, conference calls and telephony all play their part. A general manager would rather get a 1 o’clock AM text message from a team employee about an athlete’s DUI arrest than a surprise call from a local reporter the next morning looking for a quote about the incident. Another collaboration tool, shared electronic calendars, allow team leaders to set up meetings with one another and check on each other’s travel schedules as organizations prepare for winter meetings, trade deadlines, scouting combines and face tough personnel decisions. Efficient and effective communication makes any company run smoother and, thus, sports organizations will continue hunting for the best tools to integrate their people and processes.