ESPN Analytics

ESPN is looking for ways to tell stories with numbers as well as it tells stories with pictures. Jeff Bennett and Noel Nash, two team members of ESPN Analytics, gave a talk and answered questions at the spORts business meeting at the INFORMS Annual Meeting. ESPN Analytics is composed of approximately 50 full-time and 90 part-time analysts that collect and tell stories with data. The most important task that these analysts face is collecting and maintaining the integrity of their data. Collecting data is a three step process that involves

  1. watching events,
  2. obtaining data from secondary sources, and
  3. checking game books and logs.

“The amount of bad data out there is incredible,” said Nash. Maintaining the integrity of the data is challenging, especially since ESPN does not have ownership of all sports clips and can’t simply double check certain things (Ownership of sports broadcasting is a contentious issue). Obtaining the rights to digitally store broadcasts is important for analytics. Moreover, all sports data is rife with errors. Therefore, ESPN will produce different statistics than, say, Yahoo! Sports. College sports data is particularly rife with errors, and Bennett referred to college sports at the “Wild West” of sports data.

The Q&A session with Bennett and Nash was fascinating for those of us who enjoy the statistics as much as the highlight reel. They know that many teams (like the Boston Red Sox) have admitted using analytics to making business decisions while other teams (like maybe the New England Patriots) are secretive about their use of analytics. Since ESPN is owned by Disney, ESPN is working with the operations research analysts used by Disney to improve ways that they look at sports data. They remained optimistic that statistics and data analysis won’t ruin the fun of sports. Neither one offered an explanation why the Cubs haven’t won the World Series in 100+ years.

ESPN is hosting a Winning Formula contest similar to the Netflix prize for an algorithm to predict who will win sports games. Their pilot contest for college football offers a total number of $100K in prize money.

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