Bear with me on this one. My guy, Tab Bamford (writer of the Blackhawks blog Committed Indians and Managing Director for La Vida Baseball…check these both out, AWESOME work!), shared a recent article about the predictability of the NBA Playoffs. The discussion on his original post centered on how we arrived at two “super teams” that everyone presumed would meet for a third straight time in the NBA Finals. The discussion also delved into the fan experience and resting star players.
This discourse got me thinking about advanced metrics and where our games are going. For argument’s sake, I’ll focus on the NBA, with an assist from MLB, because those are my two favorite pro sports. But the analytic revolution is filtering to every sport, and trickling down to the college level, where big money is still on the line for wins.
But, that’s where my curiosity piqued. Because, as fans, do we simply watch games because we want our teams to win? Or do we simply want to be entertained? Does WINNING equate ENTERTAINMENT? Understandably, tickets are scarcer for home games of teams that win. And I’m not naive enough to think that an “entertaining” team doesn’t often “win”, because entertaining styles of play often rely on teamwork and fundamentals. Plus, teams that win pull in more revenue from increased playoff games. But at what points are analytics sacrificing entertainment and our enjoyment of the games simply to put a number up in the win column, no matter how ugly it occurs?
If you’re a Bulls fan, you might know that the team just led the NBA in attendance for the eighth straight year. Granted, the beginning of that streak began with the emergence of hometown MVP Derrick Rose. But the past two seasons? Missed the playoffs last year, snuck in and got bounced in the first round this year. If the Bulls stay on this mediocre course, the attendance streak will definitely end. And if you grew up in the Jordan era without a family friend who had Bulls season tickets and were willing to let you have them to see the Bucks come to town, you weren’t likely to find a way into any games at a reasonable price.
So, we have both ends of the spectrum in Chicago. But this season, you could have purchased tickets for below face value to see the Bulls play the likes of the 76ers, or other similar lottery-bound teams. But if you wanted to see the Cavaliers or Warriors along with their superstar players? Try double face value…and that’s on top of a premium price already being commanded by the Bulls at face value (the dreaded “dynamic pricing structure”). Which of these games were the games fans wanted? The game where the Bulls had a good chance of winning (Sixers) or the game they’d be most entertained (LeBron James and the Cavs)?
Let’s take it to baseball. Yes, the Cubs are the defending World Series champs (!!!), so tickets are always difficult to come by. But you can sure get a ticket to see them play an afternoon game against the Brewers much easier than you could, say, see them play the Dodgers. Now, which one of those has a greater probability of a Cubs blowout win and which is more likely to be an “entertaining” game that could go either way? At least the NBA can lean on the fact that one superstar can impact a game much more than in baseball (five players on the floor with the superstar playing 95% of the minutes at his position vs. nine in baseball, with that superstar only getting to be at-bat five times or a pitcher pitching half the game, at most).
With the stage set, per se, let’s get to analytics. If you’re an NBA fan, you know that teams are shooting the three-pointer at an increasing rate. The rise of SportVU (among other analytics) in NBA arenas has opened up a new world of how efficiently players move, how they best score or defend, and how well players shoot from particular spots on the floor. That can be broken down by each player, but we imperatively know that the three-point shot’s value has risen dramatically over the years. Put it this way…in 1979-80, the first year of the NBA three-point shot, both teams shot a combined average of 2.8 per game. This past season, the Houston Rockets took an average of 40.3 three’s PER GAME THEMSELVES (hitting 14.4 at a 35.7% rate).
This paragraph, taken from a 2015 article by Terrance F. Ross in the Atlantic, sums it up:
The Houston Rockets—led by general manager and analytics buff Daryl Morey—are renowned for their use of data. The team rarely shoots long-range two-point jumpshots, as they believe it to be one of the worst strategies in basketball. And their reasoning makes sense: The shots are too far away from the rim to be rendered a high-probability scoring opportunity, yet not far enough—as in behind the three-point line—for the risk to be rewarded with an extra point. This ideology, backed up by mountains of data, is a prime example of analytics at work.
We can make the connection here that shooting more three-point shots (by skilled players, NOT by Dwight Howard!) means more points, so more opportunity for wins. But is that style of play entertaining for you? I love this quote from 1979, taken from a Vice Sports article written by Wade McCagh last fall, and about the three-point shot:
“It may change our game at the end of the quarters,” then-Phoenix Suns Coach John MacLeod told The New York Times. “But I’m not going to set up plays for guys to bomb from 23 feet. I think that’s very boring basketball.”
This is where I’m getting to. Do you go to NBA games to watch players bomb away from 25 feet? Maybe to see Steph Curry, but that’s an outlier because you might not realize this, but that’s not why you want to see Curry. He could be the best NBA game shooter ever, but he gets open looks because of how well his team moves the ball and plays together. A basketball fan can appreciate “how” the Warriors get looks. But did anyone clamor to go see those Rockets play this season? Their offense is predicated on James Harden bringing the ball up and trying to get QUICK three-pointer for Eric Gordon or himself. Did that strategy work for Houston? Absolutely. Is it fun to watch? Not really, in my opinion.
When I go to an NBA game, I want to see crisp ball movement, exciting fast-breaks, and acrobatic dunks. I want to see the most athletic basketball players in the world play, well, basketball. I don’t want to just see the best “shooters” in the world pull up from 25-feet. And if that means my hometown Bulls lose, I won’t be disappointed…seeing good hoops is more important to me.
In baseball, we see analytics take shape in things like the defensive shift, where someone like a left-handed hitting Anthony Rizzo will see seven defenders to the right field side of second base. Metrics tell us the “three true outcomes” of an at-bat are a walk, home run, or strikeout. For Rizzo, he’s pressed to have one of those outcomes against the shift…walk, hit a home run, or strike out trying. He’s not bunting to third base for a sure hit, and we rarely see the excitement of a stolen base today because the saber metric numbers show the gamble for a steal isn’t worth a potential out. The game is turning very one-dimensional, and perhaps more boring than in the past. Even though defenses encourage the batter to use the entire field, batters won’t do it. And rather than seeing a new generation of pitchers in the mold of Greg Maddux, barely throwing 90 MPH but getting ground ball outs with 90-pitch complete games, we’re seeing an endless parade of 100 MPH “throwers” who get strikeouts, but are also prone to walking batters and giving up long balls…not to mention having reconstructive surgery before age 25. All because the MIT grads and their computers tell the field staff this is the best way to win games.
Here’s where I see a disconnect though. Back to the “winning” vs. “entertaining” aspect. Coaches and front offices are paid simply to win. They’re not evaluated on “entertainment”. And I find that interesting because sports, at it’s core, is about entertainment. At some point, fans might start to realize that watching basketball teams shoot 50 three’s a game, or baseball teams make seven pitching changes on each side during a game because the “numbers” show they should, is inherently boring. ESPN might argue that it’s already happening…there are too many other ways to be entertained these days. The biggest threat to sports viewership is being able to bury your nose in your smart phone…check email and Facebook, send a Tweet or text, and zone out from the game itself.
Next time you find yourself at a pro sports event, check yourself a few times. Are you entertained? Did you put your phone in your pocket and pay full attention? Does it matter if your team is winning? Is the experience worth the price you paid for your ticket? Because at some point, in the near future, pro sports will have to grapple with all of these questions and make additional course corrections to stay relevant in today’s world.