Is ESPN Ready to Embrace Big Data?

Sports media giant blitzes Boston to court nerds

Nerd convention. Dorkapalooza. Geek heaven. Just a few names that were bandied about last weekend to describe the annual gathering of sports' intellectual cabal at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. This year, with a record turnout of over 2,700 attendees, the conference center floors were flooded with suit-clad, badge wearing MBAs, unassuming scouts and team executives, and many of the founding fathers of sports' statistical underbelly.

Yet, even with buzzworthy appearances from Moneyball writer Michael Lewis and live-wire personalities like Mark Cuban, convention-goers couldn't round a corner or glance at a name tag without the omnipresent reminder that the four-letter sports behemoth of ESPN was in the building.

Never one to shy away from a marketing opportunity, ESPN's assault on the analytics world took a multifaceted approach. Aside from the general sponsorship (every Sloan Conference badge, pamphlet and logo was meticulously emblazoned with a reminder: "Presented by ESPN"), the company brought along 189 registered attendees to the event, ranging from low-level data scientists and researchers to president John Skipper and evp John Walsh, who could be seen wandering the halls in a cowboy hat. All conference attendees were treated to a complimentary issue of ESPN The Magazine's 2nd annual analytics issue, a rare company celebration of data and charts, the timing of which was no mere coincidence. During the show, ESPN's message was painfully obvious: See, you nerds, we're here! We're listening!

If you're looking for insight into how the media giant plans to position itself in the coming years, an embrace of data and analytics could be a pretty safe bet. But after two days of sports and Big Data talk, it became apparent that ESPN faces something of an institutional battle in becoming the worldwide leader in analytics.

"Obviously you guys all know the E in ESPN stands for Entertainment, but for the purposes of this conversation I think it also stands for education," said Michael Smith, an ESPN personality and host of the network's data centric show Numbers Never Lie, during "ESPN's Use of Analytics in Storytelling" panel. "One of the things we're committed to is educating our viewers, readers and fans."

In some ways, Smith's quip is the perfect summation of the uphill battle that ESPN faces in truly accepting a data-centric ethos. As hard as it tries to court the numbers crowd with sponsorships and panels, ESPN has a job to draw eyeballs, a task that doesn't always mesh with the math and acronym-heavy worlds of sabermetrics and stats like WAR (wins above replacement), UZR (ultimate zone rating), Total QBR (quarterback rating) and BPI (basketball power rating).

"It's definitely a struggle," ESPN analytics specialist Alok Pattani told the crowd of his task to get ESPN talent and producers to embrace new metrics. "There's this inherent idea with say, a stat like quarterback rating where they think they can watch the quarterback themselves and assess how good he is. You really have to overcome biases."

Those biases appear to run deep at an entertainment network like ESPN and have even bubbled to the surface on occasion. Last fall, an ESPN personality and on-air contributor to First Take and Numbers Never Lie caused a stir during a series of tweets trolling the cerebral side of the baseball community, including senior baseball writer Keith Law.

Naturally, the tweet did it's job drumming up hype and eliciting a desired response from the "calculator crowd."

Parker's career at ESPN was ended after some incendiary comments regarding Washington Redskin's quarterback RGIII. Meanwhile, many see steps like the Sloan sponsorship as a heartening move by ESPN to court the data crowd and believe that while it may be slow, a move toward more data visualization and underlying statistics is inevitable.

"It's going to be incremental no matter what," NBC Sports writer and author Joe Posnanski told Adweek. "So much of what's going on here is cutting edge. I think the ESPN guys who are here know that this can add a whole new level to their content. I think they're watching these panels and thinking, 'Wow, I never thought of it that way,' and I hope they'd want to say 'Hey, we ought to have more of this.' It doesn't need to be intrusive, but we need to try and push to a higher level and give people a deeper understanding of the game. Deep down we're all just pushing for that. Hopefully with a conference like this with ESPN so heavily involved they would use that and say, 'Let's do a little more.'"

Looking toward ESPN's future, Sloan conference attendee types can hope for progress when it comes to advanced analytics coverage. To its credit, ESPN seems dedicated to entertain that speculation with increased talk about the importance of Big Data. At one of the weekend's panels, ESPN's Walsh called the current sports media era a "critical time," noting that "we've reached pretty much a ceiling in some areas of consumption of the sports product."

Walsh added, "The future right now is dependent on a lot of innovative thinking that should go into sports." But for the time being, expect more Skip Baylesses than Nate Silvers on your TV set.

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