What’s at stake? Seemingly everything: trophies, revenues, funding and fans, not to mention the sheer thrill of victory, particularly when the game is elite professional sports. Where managers’ and owners’ “gut” once ruled, analytics insights are fast becoming a standard part of a coach’s playbook.
Even so, two recent sports examples showcase how difficult it is to balance analytics with experience, even with big investments in analytics.
In February 2014, The Wall Street Journal ran a story that details “one of the greatest comebacks in sports history:” Oracle Team USA’s dramatic win against Emirates Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup competition that took place in San Francisco Bay between the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island:
Oracle Team USA’s problem was tactical: the data was telling Skipper Jimmy Spithill to do one thing — sail at a tighter angle to the wind — and his experience was telling him to do something else. Finally, in the eighth race, “with his team's prospects getting dimmer by the hour,” according to The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Spithill decided it was time to stop obeying the computers and start thinking like sailors.” In a stunning upset, Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup 9 to 8.
Across the Atlantic, where football (and not the American version) rules supreme, another sort of upset is occurring: Despite it being one of the last holdouts in major sports, more resources are being pumped into football data and analytics than ever before. And players are being measured on every conceivable move. With some very clever outcomes, according to an article in the NewStatesman that details a finding by Manchester City’s data analyst that inswingers — kicks that curve in toward the goal — are the most winning kicks in the league..."