Last year, technology and management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton broke into the sports world as the brains behind the MLB’s first Replay Operations Center, bringing a century of lessons learned in the highest levels of business and government to the ballpark.
We’re joined by Ray Hensberger, leader of the firm’s sports analytics practice, to discuss how Booz Allen Hamilton became interested in the industry, its work thus far in the space as well as his vision for the future.
Booz Allen is a sponsor of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which will take place February 27-28 in Boston, and Hensberger’s team will be onsite in the Data Science and Visualization Zone.
Q: So, how does a 100-year old consulting firm known for government contracting find its way to the sports world?
A: I sit within Booz Allen’s Strategic Innovation Group. Our team is charged with developing innovative ideas to grow the firm’s current work or help us reach new markets entirely, and there’s a few huge sports fans, myself included, that wanted to explore what we could do in this space.
Our first test efforts revolved around using data science to predict pitches at the Major League level as well as identifying hot shooting zones in the NBA; and then, obviously, backing the MLB’s Replay Operations Center was a major initiative for us, out of the gate.
Q: On that note, how did that opportunity arise? You guys have obviously been around for quite some time but are new to this particular space. How did conversations with the MLB even get off the ground?
A: In terms of the MLB engagement, we were brought on for our expertise in developing government command-centers for defense and intelligence scenarios. And, similarly, our subsequent discussions with teams and leagues have centered on how we are able to bring various military grade capabilities to the sports world, both on and off the field. Though the command center is complete, at this stage, we’re just beginning to have conversations with the MLB centered on its data science opportunities. There’s a ton of data there to be used.
Q: What have reactions been from these teams and leagues? Have they been receptive to what Booz Allen has to offer?
A: Absolutely. At this stage, I would say there are more active discussions around our ability to use data to improve the fan experience and assist front offices with ticket prices and business concerns of that nature, but we’re still very much committed to developing new ways of looking at what’s happening within games, themselves. We’re particularly excited to demo one of those tools at this year’s conference.
Q: What can we expect to see at the Booz Allen booth?
A: There are four separate technologies we’re excited to share; each can be found within the event’s Data Science and Visualization Zone. Booz Allen BlitzD is a prototype app for the Surface Pro 3 we made in conjunction with Microsoft using their Azure Machine Learning platform that enables defensive coordinators to predict offensive plays in real-time and is our most advanced in-game tool, to date.
We will also be showcasing an initiative we completed for a major league baseball team. Specifically, we examined the secondary ticket market to develop a price-prediction model. We also designed a platform that could effectively enable anyone in a front office or on a sideline to perform data science tasks without writing a single line of code.
Last but not least, we’ll be showing off our social media analytics software that we think could go a long way for players, teams and entire leagues in terms of tracking sentiment during reputational crises.
Q: Regarding in-game analytics, what would you say to those that fear technology will impede the human aspect of the sports we love?
A: That’s a question we have repeatedly received, and I have always said we are not looking to replace human decision-making or talent. We are just trying to better inform players and coaches to make the games we love more competitive, safer and, overall, more enjoyable to watch.
Similarly, the technology we leverage on the business and government sides of the house would never fully replace the intuition of executives, policymakers or operatives in the field. We just focus on ensuring those individuals are making the most informed decisions possible.
Q: With a year under your team’s belt and a slew of new toys to show off at the conference, what is your overall vision for this space?
A: It sounds cliché, but the sky is truly the limit for analytics in this industry. We have only scratched the surface of what advanced data science can do for teams both on and off the field, and the appetite for technological solutions is seemingly huge. From tools that can tell fans optimal times to go grab a hotdog to physiological analysis of injuries, the potential of this space has already come so far from the first days of sabermetrics, and the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, in and of itself, is a testament to the speed with which this industry is growing. It’s only going to get faster, more competitive and more interesting – just like the sports we’re analyzing – and we couldn’t be happier to be on the playing field.