What We’re Reading: November 2021
This fall has been as busy as ever for sports and analytics and we’re here to share some highlights of what has caught our eye. From companies making early stakes in the Metaverse to World Series analytics decisions challenging how fans react to their favorite teams to ingrained biases of commentators and fans, here are our top stories for November 2021:
With a rush to build the Metaverse, sports and esports companies are among the leaders
Coming hot on the heels of the announcement that the Facebook parent company was changing its name to Meta, the world’s largest sports apparel company, Nike, filed patents (just one day before the big Facebook announcement) that lead many to believe they intend to get their signature Nike “Swoosh” into the Metaverse. But they are not the only ones. Epic Games, the creators of Fortnite, led a $1 billion funding round in April that is intended to “help accelerate our work around building connected social experiences” and “support our vision for Epic and the Metaverse.” Additionally, a company called Unity recently unveiled Unity Metacast and hired former Liverpool FC CEO Peter Moore to lead the platform. Their first collaboration is expected to be with UFC in the creation of a real-time 3D sports platform. With all of this investment, it is only a matter of time before we are all living and experiencing our entertainment in the Metaverse.
Analytics have become commonplace throughout sports; now fans are catching up
We want to give a big congratulations to the Atlanta Braves for winning their first World Series Championship since 1995. However, it did not come without its criticism. After pulling a starting pitcher who was working a no-hitter through five innings on only 76 pitches, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker could have certainly been on the hot seat had the decision backfired. Using analytical data, Snitker said this about the decision: “It could have backfired, I guess, I just thought at that point in time, in a game of this magnitude and all, that he had done his job.” Many critics say that analytics are ruining the excitement of the game, and this case where fans did not get to see how far the pitcher could take the no-hitter is no exception. Luckily for Snitker and the Braves, they won Game 3 and went on to win the World Series in six games.
Baseball is not the only sport undergoing massive changes as a result of analytics. The NBA in particular has seen a shift in shooting locations, leading to heat maps that would have been unrecognizable just five years ago. So far this season, with fans back in the arenas, shooting percentages are down from even pre-pandemic levels and are on pace to be the worst in 20 years. While some experts blame the fans, or the new game ball, it might be worth considering if the rapid shift to predominantly three point shooting and less diverse shooting locations has reduced the overall quality of the game. Only time will tell if these changes will have lasting impacts on the game, and we will be watching every step of the way.
No matter how far we think we have come, we still have a ways to go
As Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) continues to be a focus of many corporations and institutions around the world (including here at MIT Sloan), we are consistently finding areas of improvement. One of the latest comes from the worldwide sport of futbol (or soccer for the Americans out there) and how it is announced. There have been many studies, one even dating back to 2001, that discuss sports commentators speaking differently when referring to athletes of different racial backgrounds. A recent study from Sportlogiq found that when viewing video footage, fans shared the same biases as the commentators - their perception of effort and athleticism were heavily influenced by athlete skin color and gender. However, when taking real game footage and applying a 2D skin that removed identification, where fans could not distinguish race or gender, these biases were not prevalent.
While at the surface the words that fans use to describe an athlete might seem inconsequential, we need to consider how this bias might impact earnings and career prospects of these athletes. As the presenter from Sportlogiq puts it, “The idea is that over time, hopefully people will realize that this is a source of bias and they’ll be able to change it within themselves. None of us are unbiased in anything we do, so I think a big part of challenging bias is acknowledging it.”