Analytics in sports are increasingly connected to the games we love.
But do they enhance the fan experience?
Last week, the NBA announced it would install data-collecting cameras in every arena, giving teams an opportunity to build on their analytical approach to the game.
The technology started less than a decade ago with just a few franchises adopting these tools. Last season, half of the league’s teams were in that group, while others awaited the league's eventual financial subsidy.
The cameras, which are placed high above the court in places not visible to fans, can track 3D player movement at a rate of 25 images per second—resulting in around one million data points to study per game.
There are countless reasons teams are adopting these practices, and many more yet to be explored. Grantland's Zach Lowe broke down a number of them recently, including tracking officiating, practice efficiency and fitness levels.
The results can't be denied either. The Dallas Mavericks, who won the 2011 NBA title, were praised for their use of analytics after beating the heavily-favored Miami Heat. Last season, both Miami and San Antonio were strong proponents of studying data, leading to one of the most entertaining Finals in recent memory.
In short, there's obviously a place for this analysis in the game.
Outside the league, though, the days that followed the NBA's announcement presented a variety of viewpoints about whom this shift would appeal to most.
Most recognized that these stats would please the more mathematical, SABR-type observers who have long been calling for these changes. Others, like Pounding the Rock, noted that even though the stats would be available to teams, the "normal" fan simply wouldn’t even have access to the data.
Then there was Braedon Clark of Toronto HQ, another SB Nation companion blog (like Pounding the Rock) that simply stated: "Where’s the Fun?"
Analytics, Clark claims, don’t always provide the emotional fuel fans thrive on.
"No kid at the park is inspired by the mechanical efficiency of James Harden's endless trips to the free throw line," he says.
"Sometimes great performances demand no analysis beyond, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’"
He references Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game against his beloved Raptors a few years ago as an ultimate ‘Wow’ moment. Clark admits that it probably wasn’t the most "efficient" game Bryant could have played, but it certainly was the most spectacular performance he could have hoped for as a fan.
Portland Trail Blazers fans know a thing or two about non-efficient heroics.
The Natural banking in a floater during a dazzling and tear-jerking comeback to beat the Dallas Mavericks? Probably the lowest percentage shot in that situation.
Travis Outlaw taking shots at the buzzer? Surely there were better players on the floor for that.
Point is there are moments that seem to stretch beyond the numbers. And while numbers may have an explanation for everything, as Clark argues, there has to be a moment where we can simply appreciate the true superhuman qualities that make sports so unique.
So to take a belief over at Raptors HQ to another level, not only should analytics never be a replacement for the most memorable moments of the game, they won’t be.
Changes to the game and the way we perceive it are inevitable; there’s no doubting the way teams prepare, coach, assess talent, set lineups, etc. will be forever changed.
However Clark and others need not plea for some non-data-driven analysis to stick around. By their very nature, moments of awe and admiration can result from a perfectly-orchestrated mathematical calculation or by pure chance. As such, they can’t be withheld from the sport.
A camera simply will never be able to replace them.