Can data-analytics software win a Super Bowl?
That’s what the Buffalo Bills are betting on: the NFL team will create an analytics department to crunch player data, building on a model already well established in professional baseball and basketball.
“We are going to create and establish a very robust football analytics operation that we layer into our entire operation moving forward,” Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon recently told The Buffalo News. “That’s something that’s very important to me and the future of the franchise.”
The increased use of analytics in other sports, he added, led him to make the decision: “We’ve seen it in the NBA. We’ve seen it more in baseball. It’s starting to spruce its head a little bit in football, and I feel we’re missing the target if we don’t invest in that area of our operation, and we will.”
But other team executives aren’t exactly rushing to embrace analytics. General manager Buddy Nix told the newspaper: “It’ll be something I’ll have to get used to because I go a lot on feel and what I see.”
The Buffalo Bills aren’t the first professional football team to crunch data in the name of a competitive edge. According to the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens rely on back-office analytics, and Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery has indicated a love for stats.
The book Moneyball, later adapted into a 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt, highlighted the Oakland Athletics’ use of “sabermetrics” to predict the value of players and, ultimately, boost team performance. Sabermetrics relies on objective statistics such as on-base percentage to determine player success; in theory, team managers can use those metrics to determine which players on the market are undervalued and snatch them up for a relative pittance, allowing the franchise to field a team capable of competing on equal terms against better-funded rivals.
In the wake of Oakland’s success, other professional baseball teams began to emulate that model, hiring full-time analysts and mining data with the enthusiasm of a tech company.
While other sports have embraced statistical analysis, there’s a good deal of debate among analysts over the accuracy of various models and tools. Sports analytics conferences now feature owners, coaches, and analysts discussing the merits of their respective platforms.
But in the end, for many owners, the success of a particular analytics model boils down to one thing: does it help the team win? The Buffalo Bills are the latest team to hope so.
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