As the NBA launched the long-awaited SportsVu player movement tracking data to the public Friday, CLNS Radio caught up with the architect of the program, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, at the Bill Russell Statue Unveiling Ceremony in Boston. Silver discussed the decision to make the data public and how he envisions this new tool will change the way NBA players are evaluated.
CLNS Radio: Why did you decide to make SportsVu public and develop it for the entire league?
Adam Silver: We decided to make it public because, first of all, there is a huge inefficiency in people going out there and trying to create that data on their own. And we know that if we make that data available, it will draw people closer to the game. For the hardcore fans that are truly interested in it, it’s a way for the passionate fans to get deeper into the game. Ultimately, to the extent that there once was a competitive advantage for some teams having it and not some others, there’s now a sufficient mass of a core group of teams–15 teams–that are already doing it and taking it on themselves.
It made sense to say, “Let’s make this league wide now. Let’s make a certain data set publicly available.” Not all of it, but recognizing that the real value comes from how they use that data as opposed to just the fact that they have it. And how accepting the coach is and the general manager is using the data, and whatever the secret formula and the secret sauce that every team has. That’s really where the difference is.
CLNS: They’re going to defend that secret sauce to the grave, but what is the difference between what the public is seeing and what the rest of the league is getting to see?
Silver: We’re actually just going through that process now. There will be certain data, maybe some of the data certainly on officiating–certain movements of officials–and some of the other data from players that I think has the potential to be misused potentially and can be misleading in terms of a player’s value. So we’re going through that process now. It’s less about what we’re withholding. It’s about what data is actually meaningful and most valuable to the public.
CLNS: Are you giving guidance to teams on how to interpret the data as far as evaluating their own players and opposing players or are you letting the free market decide how that should be done?
Silver: Well, we let the free market decide. We have a department called TeamBo [Team, Marketing & Business Operations] and the job of that department is to go out and help teams with business analytics, so that teams aren’t direct competitors for selling tickets, for example. For the most part, maybe a little bit in certain cities. But generally, it’s good for everybody if teams develop a better capacity for selling tickets and selling sponsorships. Wins and losses, of course, are very different as it’s a zero-sum game.
So I think there’s got to be a balance there from a league standpoint, one that let’s make this core set of data available and then let the free market work among the teams as opposed to us getting intimately involved on how they use this set of data.
CLNS: You said that there was a core group of teams that were already ahead of the game on this initiative. Do you know what the lag was for the rest of the league being readily able to adopt it?
Silver: I think it was, maybe, a little bit on the expense side for some teams. Where, because they were busy also trying to make a business out of their team and weren’t able to spend as freely. But I think there were some philosophical differences among some teams. I think it was no different than the way ‘Billy Ball’ evolved in Major League Baseball that certain GMs and certain coaches were early adopters. Obviously [Celtics Assistant GM] Mike Zarren here in Boston, Darryl Morey who comes from Boston and is taking his technique to Houston. But I think also, it spread, seemingly to me, more quickly through this league maybe than other leagues.
CLNS: It happened almost overnight which was so shocking about it.
Silver: Well I credit also, [Bill] Simmons and people like that who have huge followings and are constantly talking about it and I think in this sport, teams are constantly looking for an edge. And I also credit a new generation of owners as well. Very analytical owners, coming in from their own other businesses. I look at somebody like Josh Harris and Dave Blitzer, two private equity guys from New York who bought the 76ers. They are used to using sophisticates data in their day jobs, so for them, their view was, “How could this not be helpful for our team?”
CLNS: It seems that most of the young owners are coming from the business background and analytics is a major part of what got them to where they are now.
Silver: Robert Pera in Memphis, Vivek Ranadive in Sacramento, Joe Lacob in Golden State. It is this new generation of owners. And I think again, there will be a mixed view between teams on how valuable, ultimately, this is but I think everyone recognizes it’s an important data point and then you go from there.
CLNS: Was there a pilot program before you decided to launch it publicly?
Silver: Well, the pilot program was the fact that certain teams have already begun to use it. Us having conversations with those teams, better understanding where they saw the value. There’s a guy named Steve Hellmuth who is sort of behind it and I think part of it is, again credit Darryl Morey with the [Sloan Sports Analytics] Conference he has been holding here in Boston, reading the papers that were presented by academics who were looking at the data.
I said to someone earlier, I went to the University of Chicago Law School. [It was] Very much an analytical basis of the study of law, so I sort of had a particular interest in it as well. But ultimately, it’s where our teams drove us. And from a league standpoint, when you get to a certain scale, it makes sense for the league to step in where we can negotiate an overall deal for all our teams to create a level playing field, have a certain set of data and let them compete from there.