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From collection to analysis: sports data and its profound impact on the AFL

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Despite Michael Lewis’s Moneyball being published 15 years ago, Australian sportswriters continue to scrap with the central theme of the book. That many of them spend a good part of their week writing earnestly about fantasy football likely aggravates this misunderstanding.

The Moneyball thesis is simple: it uses statistical analysis to bring in assets that are undervalued by other teams and trades out ones that are overvalued by other teams. Oh, and the statistical analysis is more complex than the ones employed for a football writer’s SuperCoach team.

Thankfully for Hawthorn fans, it was a concept that Alastair Clarkson clearly understood, and its impact on Australian rules football has been profound.

James Coventry is the ABC’s deputy sports editor and the author of Footballistics: How the Data Analytics Revolution is Uncovering Footy’s Hidden Truths. While researching the book, he found that Moneyball was something everyone was aware of and it was universally read among the AFL’s coaching circles. The book was released shortly after Clarkson arrived at Port Adelaide, where his fellow assistant coach was a man regarded by many as one of the league’s sharpest analytical minds – Phil Walsh.

Glenn Luff, a senior AFL analyst at Champion Data, is quoted in the book’s introduction as saying, “Moneyball was huge for us… we went from being purely data collectors to also being analysts”.

And it was Port Adelaide, through coach Mark Williams, Walsh and Clarkson, that was doing most of the pushing. Port Adelaide won the premiership the year after Moneyball was released and when Clarkson accepted the senior coaching role at Hawthorn the following year, he realised he needed people from outside football – people like his first hire, the biomechanics genius David Rath.

“There was definitely an awareness of the Moneyball idea at that time, and I think there was hope that we could Moneyball the AFL,” Rath is quoted as saying in the book.

“The timeline of all this is the 2003-2005 period, where football really starts to change in Australia,” says Coventry. “That was when the interchange rotations started to increase, and tactics obviously developed from that, along with a trend towards drafting athletes over footballers.”

One of Rath’s early ideas in “Moneyballing” the AFL was how to value kicking. So, Clarkson talked through Rath’s expertise in biomechanics and sought to recruit and draft players who were already great kicks and developed the substandard kicks, such as Brad Sewell, who were already at the club.

When Clarkson took over at Hawthorn they were one of the worst in the league for kicking efficiency. By 2008, they were the competition’s most efficient.

While statistics is a different area to the evolution of the game’s tactics that Coventry wrote on in 2015’s Time and Space, he sees Footballistics as something of a companion piece.

“The way Time and Space was structured was era by era, with the same amount of time devoted to each era,” says Coventry. “But the modern game has sped up enormously because of tactics yet was given the same amount of space to the 50s and 60s where the pace of change was more restrained. And the feedback I received was that people wanted more on the modern game.”

The books dovetail well as Time and Space concludes with Hawthorn’s second premiership in 2014 and Footballistics carries it on from there.

The challenges that Coventry and contributors had in compiling the book is that Australian rules football has been described as the most data-rich sport in the world, and that access to this data is limited.

Champion Data has monopolised football statistics and is a private company whose aim, like any business, is to make money. The company attracts a lot of scatological abuse for not being more open, but in a small market such as Australia (and the AFL), that’s a lousy business model. So, most of the interesting, worthwhile numbers remain hidden behind a paywall and you have to be inside an AFL club to access these stats and get a fuller picture – and even then, you almost need to have a MacArthur genius grant to sort the signal from the noise and pick the right numbers to look at.

The lack of access, and broader understanding of statistical analysis (particularly in a game with so many variables – fields of varying size, 36 players, an oval ball and no offside rule) is a tough problem for the AFL to solve if it wants to establish a similar analytical environment to the one which exists in the USA, and open the sport to a broader audience.

“Some people are naturally drawn to that side of the sport – I certainly am,” says Coventry. “I’m a bit of a nerd in that way. Even though I can’t do the analyses myself and I’m bad with numbers – I failed maths at school – I really like reading about it. Especially sports. I’m a big basketball fan and there’s some great writers in the NBA who are able to use analytics in a really clever way – not just throw numbers at you but really put them in context. The numbers don’t need to explain everything. Even if they can help you understand the game a little bit better, it’s a good thing.”

And this is something that Footballistics goes some way to achieving, particularly when it uses statistics to tackle some of the game’s shibboleths, such as the deterioration of goalkicking. Yes, lies, damned lies, statistics and West Coast’s 6.16 and all that, but we live in an age where you’re more likely to find a political or media narrative based on a lie without the requirement for proof or facts. Anything that seeks to redress that, even just for footy, can’t be a bad thing.

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