Before this year’s NBA Finals we told you about SportVU, a system of optical tracking cameras capturing about 25 times per second the X/Y coordinates for every player on the floor, along with a Z (vertical) coordinate for the ball itself. From there, SportVU’s algorithms turn images into vast amounts of data, affording users the opportunity to answer nearly every question they have about what’s really happening on a basketball court. As the analytics movement has gained momentum in the NBA, so too has SportVU. The first game was tracked in 2009 at the Finals between the Lakers and Orlando, and the following year a handful of teams (including the perpetually wise San Antonio Spurs) became early adopters of the system for their own use. By last season, 15 of the NBA’s 30 teams had paid to have the cameras installed in their home arenas, running the system at a cost of about $100,000 per year.
That was then.
The NBA announced Monday an expansion of the relationship between the league and STATS LLC, provider of statistical data to the NBA for nearly a decade and parent company of SportVU, that will see tracking cameras installed at every arena in the NBA. It’s a groundbreaking move. Where teams used to contract individually with SportVU, the NBA has stepped in as an organization to become the first major professional sports league to quantify and analyze player movement in live game action. Not only will every team now be able to receive and tailor packages of data to their specific needs but the league as a whole will use data to help explain and market the game in ways it hadn’t before.
The NBA has stepped in as an organization to become the first major professional league to quantify and analyze player movement in live game action.
“We are a league driven by data, and our expanded partnership with STATS provides our teams and fans with access to uncover groundbreaking statistics,” said Steve Hellmuth, NBA Executive Vice President of Operations and Technology in a release. “In this new era of statistical information, SportVU will be an invaluable resource for basketball executives and our passionate fans.” The key word here is “fans.” There is a tremendous thirst among the hardcore hoops junkie for any information better explaining and revealing what takes place on the floor. The league now has one more tool at its disposal to help market the game in unique ways, enhancing the content of NBA.com (which already has a very sophisticated page for advanced statistics) and NBA TV, as well as the league’s Game Time app. Teams, meanwhile, will be able to use the data not just for strategic purposes, but also to goose the in-game experience for fans watching inside the arena.
From juicy nuggets of statistical goodness easily shared on social media to high-end graphics packages translating very well for broadcast, the NBA clearly recognizes what a tool like SportVU provides. (Moreover, the NBA plans to use SportVU data to help improve officiating, as well, a measure hopefully able to improve both the work they do and the perception of it by fans of the game.)
Meanwhile, expanding leaguewide means filling the holes in SportVU’s statistical database. No longer will certain teams and players be underrepresented because their home arena didn’t have the cameras. More data means a more accurate picture of the game’s realities, and more ways in which savvy people can use information to change how basketball is played. That could mean a coach on the sidelines taking real-time information about how his team is being defended and adjusting his strategy, a superstar player tracking his strengths and weaknesses in an effort to improve on-court performance, and myriad other applications including player spacing and fitness.
It wasn’t exactly the secretest of secret weapons at this point, but now that SportVU data will be available to every team, a premium is placed on the creativity with which teams use it. “At first, the advantage is having access to data, but just like anything else, that’s not a very sustainable advantage,” says Brian Kopp, Vice President at STATS. “The sustainable advantage is always going to be what you do with it. Now that everybody has access to it, it levels the playing field as it relates to access, but it’s still on each of the teams to interpret and analyze and use the way that they’d like. Traditionally, some teams have been better at that than others.”
Kopp still sees an advantage for early adopters, as well. “They’ve had several years to get comfortable, not just with handling the data, but what elements of the data they’d like to see. They now have trend lines that they can use,” he said. Plus, Kopp notes, any of the 15 teams new to SportVU this season won’t have access to historical data. “Going forward, they’re going to have it and we’re here to help them analyze it, but they’re not going to have the historical baselines that the teams using it for a couple years have.”
All told, it’s one more indication of how analytics are no longer the insurgent fighting mainstream forces in sports. In the NBA, it is the mainstream.