There's No IP In Team: How Protectionism Is Holding Back Sports Metrics (And Everything Else)

from the collaboration-is-key dept

If there is a single place where the sports and the geek worlds collide, it is undoubtedly in statistics. It’s long been said that baseball is a thinking man’s game, in part because of the chess game that is built into its very skeleton, but also because of the role that math and numbers play in terms of making decisions on each team based on individual situations. By this time, only those that work really hard at staying away from baseball will fail to recognize names like Bill James or Billy Beane. The people now most responsible for constructing teams and their strategies are people with advanced degrees in fields like economics and statistics. What’s interesting is how quickly advanced metrics, or sabermetrics, have exploded in use and depth in the past ten years after being almost universally derided by the major league clubs. Advanced stats are everywhere in baseball now, from the early focus on OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging) to WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to WRC+ (Weighted Runs Created) and so on. What’s amazing is how far behind other sports appear to be in developing their own advanced statistical systems. Take basketball, for instance. It would be very easy to conclude that there has been nothing resembling the development of baseball statistics in professional basketball, otherwise we’d have heard about it and the knowledge of it would have spread as wide as it has in baseball, right?

Well, no, actually, and the reason why is a lesson in how collaboration, open development, and building off of the ideas of others provides the most advanced outcome. Such is Jason Schwartz’s conclusion in his lead up to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where at least some discussion of basketball metrics is occurring. That conference, now an ESPN sponsored event, grew out of what was once a simple Yahoo message board started in 2001 by basketball stats geeks. Early on, as was the case with baseball metrics, the forum was open for discussion, peer review, and the exchange of ideas. Unlike baseball, however, the NBA knew all about Moneyball by 2003 and teams were extremely interested in the potential of advanced metrics.

The NBA establishment quickly took notice. [Dean] Oliver, who published the seminal Basketball on Paper in 2003, seven months after Moneyball hit stores, was hired full time by the Seattle Supersonics in 2004. Another frequenter of the board, John Hollinger, was hired the following year by ESPN – and recently became a vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. Hollinger’s ESPN gig was filled by Pelton, who, after making his name at Basketball Prospectus, did a consulting stint with the Indiana Pacers’ front office. Roland Beech, who created the popular website 82 games, was hired by the Dallas Mavericks in 2009 as director of basketball analytics. (His boss, Mark Cuban, is regularly one of the biggest names at the Sloan conference.)

So you’re probably thinking, “Great! The teams took notice in the early stages, unlike what happened in baseball, meaning that the knowledge was embraced!”, right? Well, that’s true, but the result was the severe retardation of growth in basketball statistics. Why? Well, if you know anything about how patents and intellectual property often function today, you’ve probably already guessed.

As soon as each statistician joined an NBA squad, sharing in public became off-limits-and so, gradually, the think tank closed shop. What were the teams paying for, after all, if their new stat gurus were just posting their ideas online for the other 29 franchises to read? This has had a paradoxical result: Because NBA teams embraced advanced stats so quickly, progress on basketball analytics has actually slowed down. The top minds are now all working in silos, not only unable to collaborate but actually competing against each other.

This is, again, the exact opposite of what occurred in baseball. For baseball statistics, because teams were not impressed by the idea of advanced metrics, favoring instead old-timey scouts on the ground, the best minds were free to collaborate with one another, forming what are now some of the most prestigious sports stats think tanks in history, like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs.

Major League Baseball teams were hidebound enough to ignore Bill James and sabermetrics for a full quarter century-as a result, he and others hashed out ideas out in open, public forums. By the time MLB executives finally embraced advanced baseball statistics, the movement was fully formed.

If you want to draw the obvious analogy, baseball statistics were developed on an open source model, while basketball has mostly been proprietary. As Schwartz notes, it isn’t necessarily a lack of knowledge that is the resulting problem, but rather the issue is that this knowledge is all segmented throughout individual teams and nobody has the collective manpower to use it to its full potential.

Many, including Oliver, believe the killer app is hiding in there somewhere. The challenge is that there’s so much information, it’s easy to get lost. “It’s like saying you’re going to Wal-Mart or Ikea to get something,” offers Tommy Sheppard, the Washington Wizards vice president of basketball administration. “You better know what you want, or you’re going to walk out with a ton of s***.” That each franchise is working alone – and against each other – compounds the problem. Goldsberry describes it as 30 “micro-CIAs,” all racing against each other to “procure actionable intelligence out of these haystacks of vast data.”

Sound familiar? Now, here’s where it gets really fun for the purposes of our analogy. The quality of team construction in baseball is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was 20 years ago, in massively large part because of the explosion of advanced statistics and the resulting understanding of the game. Think about that for a moment. Even as these teams compete with one another, because of this open source statistical model for knowledge of the game, every team is better off for it. The game has universally advanced. Basketball, however, under the proprietary model, has not. While there have been rule changes that have influenced how the game is played, player evaluation is still essentially the same game it was 20 years, or even 40 years ago — and thus you still end up with teams that look good on paper based on the old stats, but fail to perform well as a team. Why? Well, perhaps because the best minds aren’t collaborating to advance the game through knowledge, and thus they’re measuring the wrong things (and optimizing for the wrong things as well).

Thinking of each league as a microcosm of society and industry, the implications for intellectual property in general, and patents in particular, are somewhat breathtaking.

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Comments on “There's No IP In Team: How Protectionism Is Holding Back Sports Metrics (And Everything Else)”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Bill James, Billy Bean...

You’re killing me. Really? This makes me sad.

These are the guys (and the teams of people associated with them really) who showed that there is a science to baseball rather than just the traditional simplistic measurements.

They basically bought into a new way to value players in the market and (especially Beane) figure out how to fill rosters with the best value.

If you don’t go read Moneyball, at least watch the (decent) movie about it…

UriGagarin (profile) says:


Cricket has lots of stats that are published every year into a huge (and expensive) tome called Wisden – my copy is from 2010 and runs to several hundred pages of that years cricket alone .

ESPNCricinfo has a statsGuru application on their website that, with a bit of arm-twisting can give you practically any stat out of cricket you can imagine (if the info is recorded of course, going back to 1820’s for ball by call commentary is not likely).

The data is relatively open , the analysis will drive you crazy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Wisden


I prefer my statistics to be a bit more condensed.

More precisely, I just need:

Did team X win yesterday’s game: True/False
By how much: X Goals

And some times:

What is team X’s current standing in the league relative to [insert their rivals]: tied/ahead/behind — for the top teams only

I don’t like to watch sports, honestly, so I’ll never understand the appeal of these massive statistics collections (for fans at least — I still think it is important to preserve the data, of course). I just need enough stats not to be a complete social outcast.

(And in case it isn’t painfully obvious, the main sport around here is Soccer)

UriGagarin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Wisden

Which version ? there are about .. um, 8?

20/20, 40 over, 50 over (1 day) , 60 over (no longer played), 2 day ,3 day , 4 day and Test.

All (except 20/20, where you get a comfort break) with meal breaks and time to do the reason why you were there : socialize .
Its the same with any sport , its boring if you don’t understand it. Being a Brit baseball(rounders plus boredom) and American football (rugby league crossed with trench warfare) are totally nonsensical unless I find someone to explain it .

mudlock (profile) says:

Now, I am not a basketball fan, but even I have heard of WP48, mostly because it’s been talked about at Freakonomics.

I would think that, ‘by this time, only those that work really hard at staying away from’ basketball ‘will fail to recognize names like’ Dave Berri.

That, or Tim has a skewed view of how popular baseball is.

(Probably the later.)

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: BUT there IS MONOPOLY in baseball.

“Exists sheerly due to legislated monopoly, exempt from anti-trust. So while you’re railing at IP, you’ve NO concern at all for gov’t granting a DIRECT monopoly. This is why your notions fail: not consistent.”

You seem to think that because I fail to mention something, it follows that I have no opinion on the matter. This is obviously a false assertion. While the post is about baseball, I also failed to mention that I don’t like the DH rule, yet you would have concluded that I have no opinion on it at all.

I do my best not to trespass on everyone’s patience by filling the post with every last bit of related subject matter. My apologies if this concept of focus eludes you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: BUT there IS MONOPOLY in baseball.

After Godwin comes rule 34:

Dark Helmet stood waist deep in the water and looked at Mike as he took off the light coverup he’d worn over his swimsuit. He rolled it up and set it on the sand, then stood and looked out over water. A wave broke around DH, almost knocking him over, and when he looked back at Mike, he was standing at the edge of the water grinning at him. As he watched, DH wondered why he’d never taken Mike to the beach before. They’d dated for two years before they got married, and they’d been married a year and a half now, but this was the first time. He was beautiful, standing there wearing only a small triangle of cloth.


Anonymous Coward says:

Unfortuneately with as big of markets as these sports companies have (and the proven sucess of statistics) teams are looking for any competitive advantage.

Short of professors/grad students at Universities getting involved, anyone with success is likely to get swept up with a rediculous salary, and all the perks of access.

Additionally, I find baseball a much easier game to analyse as there are very few situations (tag outs and fights on the mound are all that come to mind) of interaction between multiple players rather than players and the ball.

Until statistics grow, there isn’t much more that I can forsee being proven than concepts such as when to foul.

NaBUru38 (profile) says:

Well, baseball is more of an individual team, at least for pitchers and batters. They don’t have to coordinate their plays with other players, jsut follow the plan (or improvise). In basketball, passes require at least two players to interact. Also, players without the ball must move correctly, to create spaces where the player with the ball can move to.

Statistics are more reliable in individual sports, or in this case, more reliable to evaluate players who play individually.

UriGagarin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not so sure about this as there are various soccer analysis companies that calculate passes, distance covered, tackles made etc that managers in the leagues use. A player that may not make the headlines may be more valuable because to those hidden factors , and those headline (and expensive) players may not be all that good in the context of the team .

It’s easier with individual style team sports ( baseball, cricket) as there is a direct 1-on-1 situation but its not impossible.
As for basketball – I have no idea – its a sport of which charms have passed me by .

Anonymous Coward says:

name a sport that does not have alot of stats ?

Nascar racing ?? F1 cars, running, bowling, boxing, rowing, you name it stats are used universally and extensively.

“what are the statistics of this sprinter for getting ‘off the blocks’ after the gun fires, what’s he’s average speed after 10 meters, how long did it take to get half way, all statistics.”

statistics are only used in games like baseball because they are so boring that fans have to do something to amuse themselves, and doing maths must be more interesting that watching the game.

and we all know, the coach is an idiot, unless he get’s it right then he’s a button pusher. (since Obama came in, you have all the answers carl).

Traveler says:

Important information about your civilization's future.

Don’t bother trying to figure out who I am, or where this post comes from. Suffice it to say it’s very distant.

I bring important and timely information for your civilization.

First, some background. Each time there’s a major change in the dominant means of wealth creation, a civilization undergoes a transition, which may be accompanied by substantial shocks and upheavals. There are profound economic disruptions, followed shortly by a massive shake-up of the political order, which may be alarming in the short term but ultimately results in a leap upwards in the quality of living.

This civilization should have seen a previous major such incident when manufacturing began to overtake agriculture as the dominant component in national GDP. When agriculture was the dominant component, those who owned and defended large amounts of land were the wealthy and politically powerful. The result was what you term the “feudal” system, in which feudal lords controlled vast territories, defended them with large armies, and competed with one another by attempting to seize territory or, failing that, destroy its agricultural worth to their rivals. Seizing land and “salting the earth” were the primary strategic acts of war.

Once manufacturing became the dominant component, this shifted. Manufacturing is not heavily reliant on controlling large areas of land, but instead on owning and defending factories and their machinery. The optimal unit of productivity changed from a feudal lord’s farmland holdings to a corporation’s factories. Further, the optimal political system changed. Whereas feudal lands were largely self sufficient and relied on trade only for imported luxuries, corporations required trade with other corporations to thrive. This interdependence creates a complex economy, which you term capitalism, and changes the role of political leadership. The leadership no longer is the same as the owner of the means of production; instead, leadership organizes a territorial region into a safe and prosperous environment for the corporations the territory hosts, through policing against theft and vandalism and managing trade at its borders. Secondarily, the individual consumers that create the demand to give the corporations their final markets, at the terminations of supply chains, need to be protected from theft and violence so that they can expect to keep and enjoy their purchases, or else they have little incentive to buy things. The optimal form of government for this is what seems to predominate here now, a liberal democracy with a capitalist economy and fairly porous borders to trade. Territorial warfare changes accordingly: capturing industrial towns replaces capturing arable land and bombing factories replaces salting earth. There’s also much less of it, as competition between owners of means of production takes place in the arena of marketing more than through violence or theft, and cooperation between owners of means of production brings benefits when they aren’t serving overlapping markets.

Other systems were likely tried, such as trying to amalgamate an authoritarian central government with manufacturing-dominant productivity, and they no doubt failed due to the inability of centralized economies to innovate and advance as fast as a free market. The maintenance of demand, beyond for staple products, requires a constant flux of new things for people to desire, while centralized systems run as a single monolithic corporation are optimized for manufacturing a specific set of things, with only incremental, non-revolutionary advancements in their nature and means of manufacture.

There have probably been weaker, subsequent upheavals of the system. For example, the transition to non-feudal social organization will have devolved farm ownership to small individuals, but the subsequent mechanization of agriculture will have favored large corporate organizations operating large farms and groups of farms. The capitalist system would have been shocked when a wave of small farm failures hit the market, setting off bank failures among lending institutions in rural areas that served local farms but not distantly-headquartered agricultural corporations, and then possibly central bank failures. This would likely have occurred roughly one century in your past, if the timeline was typical.

A much larger transitional upheaval looms in your immediate future now. Manufacturing is no longer the dominant term in your most advanced territories’ GDP. The largest contribution now comes from the direct growth and application of knowledge, ultimately to accomplish tasks and allocate time, wealth, and other resources more efficiently. Information itself, and the collation, filtering, and networking-together of related information; so, information and relevance; are supplanting material objects (and food) as valuables, and the means of production of information are supplanting factories (and farms) as capital.

This necessitates as severe a transition as that from agriculture to industry. The optimal organization for information productivity, as you have discovered when you noted that “[t]he top minds are now all working in silos, not only unable to collaborate but actually competing against each other”, is not a feudal territory or even a corporation but a network. Crucially, it must have highly porous borders to information flow in both directions, unlike a corporation which must protect its wares and equipment from theft or sabotage, or a feudal land which must protect its land from conquest or sabotage.

The network thus must not own its own products, paradoxically, or it will be out-competed by ones that do not own their products. A brief survey shows not only the clear instance with statistics your article mentions, but also an instance in the software that governs your information processing machines. A network produces, without owning, one alternative, called Linux, and corporations produce another two, called Windows and iOS. The former has advanced rapidly and eaten into the latter’s market share, to the point that on the mobile computing devices that are your current generation of information processing tools Linux (and its derivative, Android) predominate. In networked servers, Linux also seems to have become dominant.

This “blog” appears to be documenting the early stages of the transition as it impacts the main economic producers, and the producers using the new methods begin to severely out-compete producers attempting to use the old methods, such as corporate silos, to produce the new goods. This transition will accelerate in a very short time, utterly transforming your economy, and the political disruption will follow shortly thereafter. It is a general trait that this transition is much more rapid than the previous one, as it can spread at the speed of light rather than that of external-combustion-engine-powered ocean-going vessels.

The dominant organization of your future is the network. A few existing examples are apparent now that I have found; the oldest being the nearly free flow of information internally within your institutions of higher learning. This has actually been disrupted recently, by publishers exerting copyrights and by patents issued related to something named a “Bayh-Dole Act”. That trend will reverse, if it hasn’t already. Another example is the manner in which your primary telecommunications network has been developed, involving open processes for comment on proposed standards and open publication of said standards, and reliant on network hosts cooperating to implement said standards to make a functioning network. Both the invention of the computing network you use and the network itself are organized on the principles that will dominate in the future.

Those, such as the authors of articles here, that have recognized some of what is coming, I notify of what is to come. I sense some despair and frustration here over the old system’s assorted victories and obstructionism. I notify you that the old system will in what to you will seem a surprisingly short time be as obsolete as feudalism.

That is, assuming the planetary environment remains stable long enough. It currently seems to be rather stressed, as often occurs when a manufacture-dominated civilization has been extant for a while. There is some danger associated with that stress, if efficiency improvements (enabled by information technology and by nanotechnology) don’t come fast enough. Also, there may be significant amounts of political violence in some territories associated with the transition, though inter-territitorial war features much less prominently in the information transition than it does in the manufacturing transition, when centrally-planned economies that are unable to compete economically with market democracies attempt to complete using instead the feudalist methods of violent conquest and destruction of capital. The information transition’s obsolete system’s last resort tends to consist instead of technological and political acts of sabotage. Since their enemies’ primary means of production are computing and communications systems, attempting to disconnect their enemies or sabotage their computing and communications equipment tend to predominate over physical violence. Have there been recent attempts at censorship, computer intrusions, or use of state military or law enforcement powers to disconnect or disable network hosts from availability? I think I saw at least one reference here to such an instance, a “domain seizure”. If so, the political transition may have entered its earliest stages. The later ones are typified by small, and later landslide, victories by political organizations oriented towards networks rather than ownership — you may have such political organizations already in some places — and, in some places, by violent internal revolutions, predominantly in areas where the political system is not open to network-based political organizations peacefully attaining rule through the consent of the governed. If there is no chance of political candidates with network-oriented policy proposals, hostile to the proprietary control of information, being elected in large numbers in your area, then the potential for violent overthrow of your local government is substantial, and thus the risk of being personally subjected to violence as a consequence of the transition.

After the transition is complete, corporations will be as relatively small and insignificant component of your economy as farms presently are compared to manufacturing and information-technology businesses. Information-technology organizations based on network principles will predominate over closed corporations. Systems of employment and remuneration of individuals will have changed correspondingly. Large central governments will become more answerable to individual citizens as the influence of corporations wanes, and later will break down into smaller locally autonomous regions, likely typically consisting of a city and outlying areas, providing for individual safety and protection of computers and other property against theft and vandalism, with little regulation of trade other than in destructive bio- and nanotechnology and other weapons, and with the larger scale organization of the world’s people based on network principles rather than any single central authority. Economic productivity will be maximized by deregulation and the dismantling of large-scale militaries, trade barriers, and other similarly obsolete institutions. The final transition away from large governments will be accelerated by the increasing difficulty of taxing economic activity that increasingly doesn’t involve direct monetary transfers, and especially of taxing forms of wealth that are grown rather than diminished by being shared. If you have a municipal level of government primary responsible for domestic peace-keeping and primarily funded by a land ownership tax, this is likely to persist and eventually predominate among all forms of governance, in the long term.

The two big caveats are these. One, the environment’s stress, and later bio- and nanotechnology, given a catastrophic accident or misuse, could collapse your civilization first, though the risk of this diminishes greatly if this transition is completed successfully. Two, someone may develop an artificial intelligence capable of recursive self-improvement based on understanding and altering its own software. This will destroy you if its goal system is not stable under its own self-improvement actions or if its goal system is not very finely tuned so that it shares your values as people. Either avoid developing such, or ensure the goal system is stable and finely tuned to your values. The time of maximum danger for this lies perhaps 20-30 years in your future, but a small amount likely exists already, based on the speed, number, and ubiquity of your computing devices.

Do not mess with destructive microorganisms, nanodevices capable of reproducing themselves autonomously, or AI unless you know exactly what you are doing. Do not count on any kind of cosmic supervisor, galactic government, those like myself, or similar entities that you may have hypothesized existing and intervening to save you from such errors. And do not despair, even at times when it seems like the “copyright maximalists” are winning, or if a violent revolution or large-scale bank failure ensues, for as long as the ecological, biotechnological, nanotechnological, and AI hazards are avoided your future is a bright one.

This will be my only communication to you.

Based on my observations, I think the appropriate parting remark for a note like this one is “HTH”.


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