Data Analytics: How Billy Beane Transformed the Sports Scene Forever

Every person in sports has one thing in common: they want to win. For years, winning was determined by ownership, front offices, and coaching. Their decisions regarding which players to draft, trade, develop, and coach had a significant impact on the outlook of the franchise. Then, in 2003, everything changed.

Oakland Athletics’ General Manager, former player Billy Beane revolutionized the world of sports forever. Beane used sabermetrics to discover the secret to success in baseball and improve the often imperfect science of sports. This was the first known use of the prioritization of statistics and data to make personnel decisions in professional sports. Beane’s thought process was simple. He theorized that a team with a high on-base percentage was a team more likely to score runs and, as a result, more likely to win more games. Beane built his team around that central tendency and helped the Athletics find success. Ever since Beane’s introduction, sports analytics has not only revolutionized baseball’s modern era but professional sports as a whole.

Today, every major professional sports team has at least one analytic expert, most frequently supported by an entire analytics department. The current sports analytics market has an evaluated net worth of $774.6 million, a small price in comparison to its expected growth. Due to analytics’ profound impact on baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and most other sports, the market is expected to grow at an astronomical compound annual growth rate of 31.2% by 2025, increasing its worth to well over four and a half-billion dollars. 

This exponential growth is a result of the competitive advantage that analytics provides a team. Mathematicians record hundreds of categories of stats on each individual player, crunching those numbers in order to provide an overall assessment of the athlete’s compatibility with the team and help make the work of scouts and general managers easier. Analysts create an overall profile of a player to determine if that player is worth drafting, signing, trading for, or even cutting.

The increased popularity of data analytics has even trickled its way down to the fans. Websites like FiveThirtyEight have over 20 journalists counting and crunching numbers for fans to gain a better understanding of an upcoming game, series, or season. Additionally, they track and project player performances as well as overall win-loss records and game results. The increased accessibility that these websites provide to fans has certainly contributed to the rampant run analytics has taken throughout athletics. 

Basketball has also been heavily impacted by the widespread use of data analytics. National Basketball Association (NBA) teams now use a form of a technology called “Player Tracking” which evaluates the efficiency of a team by analyzing individual player movement, on and off the ball. Each team now uses six cameras, installed in the catwalks of arenas, to track the movements of every player on the court and the basketball 25 times per second. This data provides a plethora of statistics on speed, distance, player separation, and ball possession. However, the way in which the data is used, determines how effective it can be. The sheer volume of data that is currently collected makes decision-making difficult for NBA franchises and results in some teams better utilizing their data than others.

Besides helping teams win, data analytics also drives customer engagement. Teams are running data-driven campaigns to understand what and when fans are watching, via app logins and online video views, in order to maximize their fan engagement. Additionally, this data is used in order to improve the in-stadium gameday experience, concession sales, improve parking lot congestion, and increase the front and back-office intelligence and overall understanding of their athletes and fanbase. 

Most recently, data analytics has made its way into the National Football League (NFL) in a fascinating manner. Harvard University senior Ella Papanek is a research and strategy intern who assisted with Cleveland Brown’s analytical preparation for its 2021 AFC wild-card game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL has quickly become a data-hungry league with websites like Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference popularizing the globalization of analytics. Papanek developed a player projection model for Cleveland’s analytics team to assess and plan for the upcoming game accordingly. Papanek is indicative of the ever-expanding market of data analytics and the countless job opportunities developing in the field.

While Billy Beane thought he was just going to turn around an abysmal Oakland Athletics team, he instead revolutionized sports forever. Data analytics has become an integral part of all major sports and provides coaches, general managers, and other stakeholders with a competitive advantage in predicting outcomes and assessing individual player performances. Professional sports have just recently scratched the surface of data analytics and the opportunities and benefits that will one day amount from it are endless.

On April 24th, 2020 Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, Dak Prescott’s older brother Jace Prescott committed suicide. This tragic news combined with the COVID-19 pandemic’s dreary social isolation propelled Prescott into a state of depression and sparked a national conversation about the normalization and stigmatization of mental health disorders. Since then, athletes across all leagues have united together to transform their own adversities with mental health into national action. 

Until recently, the term mental “toughness” was often used in place of mental health in the sports atmosphere. Athletes were expected to be resilient, rigid, unfazed, and show few signs of weakness. But now, pioneers such as Prescott are paving the way for a new, more empathetic national conversation to be had. 

After his own difficulties with depression, Prescott emphasizes how crucial it is to maintain one’s mental health and ask for help when needed. In an interview with USA Today, Prescott explains how the conversation surrounding mental health must be normalized in order to help the nation understand the prevalence of mental health struggles while also teaching a nation built on “toughness” to embrace vulnerability.

“Mental health leads to the health of everything else,” Prescott said. “Before I can lead, I have to make sure my mind is in the right place to do that and lead people to where they want to be. I think that it’s important to be vulnerable, to be genuine, and to be transparent. I think that goes a long way when you are a leader and your voice is being heard by so many you can inspire.”

Conversely, Fox Sports commentator Skip Bayless had a different stance. Bayless boisterously criticized Prescott as he viewed his open vulnerability surrounding his mental health difficulties as unbecoming of a leader and as a hindrance on the football field.

“I have deep compassion for clinical depression, but when it comes to the quarterback of an NFL team, you know this better than I do. It’s the ultimate leadership position in sports. You’re commanding a lot of young men and some older men. And they’re all looking to you to be their CEO, to be in charge of the football team. Because of all that, I don’t have sympathy for him. Look, he’s the quarterback of America’s team. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spots, and it definitely can encourage others on the other side to come after you.”

Ironically, Bayless’s comments starkly display the exact stigma that Prescott and other athletes are attempting to break down. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes a different stance than Bayless and instead applauds Prescott’s courage and bravery for his battle with depression and his openness to converse about it.

“Strength is taking care of yourself, taking care of your mind, understanding how important your thoughts are, and understanding how important positivity is,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s phenomenal in speaking out because that takes true courage and that’s true strength. That’s not a weakness at all. I applaud Dak. It’s a beautiful thing when people start talking about it because at the bare minimum it makes you more relatable to people. We all have the same struggles and the same issues.”

Five-time National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star and UCLA Men’s Basketball alumni Kevin Love has also been a trailblazer for mental health awareness within the NBA. With a history of depression, Love has also endured intense anxiety throughout his life. One day, Love’s emotions became too overwhelming to handle and he experienced a panic attack on the court in a 2017 home game versus the Atlanta Hawks.

“I was having trouble catching my breath,” Love wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune the following March. “It’s hard to describe, but everything was spinning like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk. I remember our assistant coach yelling something about a defensive set. I nodded, but I didn’t hear much of what he said. By that point, I was freaking out.”

After this experience, Love came to one conclusion. His entire life had been dedicated to training his body for the high-stress scenarios of NBA play, but he had neglected the proper time and resources needed to care for his mind as well.

“It’s kind of strange when you think about it,” Love wrote. “In the NBA, you have trained professionals to fine-tune your life in so many areas. Coaches, trainers, and nutritionists have had a presence in my life for years. But none of those people could help me in the way I needed when I was lying on the floor struggling to breathe.”

The lack of attention and training that most Americans receive regarding mental health is why Love has recently helped launch a new company called Coa, the world’s first gym for mental health. It is a therapist-led, emotional fitness class platform that includes therapist matchmaking, group classes, and one-on-one therapy. The idea is to make mental health a proactive and daily practice, just like physical fitness. Love could not be more excited about this new company.

“Coa really aligns with everything I’m about,” Love said. “It’s a proactive approach to mental fitness. We’re creating a safe place to talk about these tough subjects around mental health and mental wellness, in a group setting. There is nothing like this out there. This has never existed before. It’s the first gym for mental health, which makes it super exciting to be a part of.”

Nationally, additional mental health awareness initiatives have been developed in this ongoing battle. Since 2010, the demand for sports psychologists has skyrocketed within NCAA institutions while athletes such as Dak Prescott and Hayden Hurst have created non-profit organizations dedicated to the matter. With it being clear that mental health issues will never fully disappear, these prominent athletes have served as inspirations to the millions of Americans who struggle with depression, anxiety and more. They have sparked a national conversation and demonstrated the value of making yourself vulnerable while also working tirelessly to provide the resources necessary to improve people’s lives across the world.

According to Love, the more awareness and serious attention that mental health gets, the healthier and happier everybody can be. And since this is an unavoidable part of life, everybody needs to understand how and have the resources available to navigate it.

“We just have to keep chipping away at the stigma,” Love said. “We have to keep talking about it. You’re far less likely to detect it if you’re not talking about it if you’re living in the shadows. Everyone is going through something that we can’t see. The thing is because we can’t see it, we don’t know who’s going through what and we don’t know when and we don’t always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It’s part of life.”