Nov 04 2013

Startups, Stats and IT Break New Ground for the NBA

The game of basketball is evolving on all fronts thanks to a healthy infusion of technology and innovation.

Of the major professional sports leagues, the NBA is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to technology and data analytics. The league recently announced in September that it would roll out a solution from STATS LLC for the 2013-2014 season that would track and quantify every game.

As the season moves forward, we’re beginning to get a better understanding of how all these pieces within the league are coming together and startup companies are behind several of the innovations in the league.

In a story published by the Los Angeles Times, we get a better understanding of how startups, like Second Spectrum, are helping lead the way in these uncharted waters of Big Data and number crunching.

“It's 1,000 times more information than anyone had before,” points out Second Spectrum CEO Rajiv Maheswaran.

But if there’s anyone well-suited to tackle the league’s challenges with managing and understanding this data, it’s Maheswaran and his team. The LA Times piece outlines the qualifications and skillsets that Second Spectrum brings to the table.

Maheswaran and [Second Spectrum COO] Chang won best paper at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year after pinpointing the relationship between the location of a shot and the odds of an offensive rebound: For every foot away from the basket that a player stands, the chance of an offensive rebound decreases by 1% until the three-point line, where it suddenly improves. They also determined that 90% of all missed shots can be rebounded within 11 feet of the basket.

The challenge is two-fold: First, the data must be gathered, which is what the league has addressed with its commitment to quantifying every game. The second part is analyzing this data at a speed which enables teams to make decisions in real time, if need be, and sharing this data with fans.

As part of its push to digitize the fan experience, the NBA has teamed up with SAP to offer in-depth analytics data and tools for fans who are eager to dive deep into the numbers. Using the company’s powerful Hana database platform, the NBA is able to provide stats in a relatively tight timeframe, according to a report from InformationWeek.

NBA.com/stats is not quite "real-time," as touted in a press release, but Gliedman said stats will be available within 15 minutes of the end of each game. The delay has more to do with officials finalizing the stats than any technical delay. Even so, 15-minute latency is much faster than most businesses experience with the overnight batch-ETL (extract, transform, load) processes that are typical in data warehousing. NBA is using SAP Landscape Transformation software for continuous, rather than batch, data integration.

While the NBA is partnering with startups and major technology companies to make its IT dreams come true, it’s also integrating its own employees into the workflow to get them up to speed. It’s an essential step in the process of infusing IT smarts with professional basketball

In many ways data and technology use is universal, but its application to specific teams must be personalized and optimized in an ongoing manner.

In the Times story, it’s mentioned that several times are hiring employees to sift through the data to help draw more meanings from the mountain of numbers. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers likens it to perfecting a formula.

“Every team is going to have their own formula that they will create that works for their team in scouting and everything,” Rivers said. “We don't know our formula yet, so we'll have to figure that out.”

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/80161911@N00/8657509605/">Dinur/Flickr</a>

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