Big Data’s Full-Court Press

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In the Magazine
Chinese members of the audience react as Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant (unseen) appears, prior to the NBA Global Games match between Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors in Beijing, October 15, 2013.

The NBA is about to unleash Big Data about big men — a data onslaught that will change the way we experience spectator sports as profoundly as the invention of television.

We'll soon know whether LeBron James runs faster in games on Tuesdays or Fridays. Or which player is likely to take the next shot. Or how a team's pattern of passing works and whether you can disrupt the whole thing by shutting down a single connection between one player and another, the way a squirrel can knock out a regional electric grid by getting fried on one relay node.

We're going to get so much data about stuff we never had data about that it will be years before software jockeys figure out the best ways to use it.

When the NBA season opens October 29, each arena will be equipped with motion-capture technology called SportVU, invented by an Israeli company. (You think an Israeli company originally developed this motion-capture gear for use in basketball? Uhhhh... not likely.)

The NBA isn't the first to discover SportVU. A handful of pro soccer teams in Europe started using it years ago, and a few Major League Baseball teams, including the San Francisco Giants, have used it to track the movement of fielders to learn more about best ways to play defense. The NHL is considering SportVU. But the NBA is taking data collection to an unprecedented level.

During every NBA game, six cameras will capture the position of each player and the ball 25 times per second. In 48 minutes of action, that's more than 4 million total data points per game.

Data being data, it can be sorted, sliced, diced, minced, analyzed, and queried. Coaches and general managers will use it to learn stuff about basketball no one even thought to ask about before. Each team's front office will find new methods of valuing players. The website Grantland has already worked with statisticians to determine who is the league's best shooter, based not just on points and attempts but also on the frequency and difficulty of those attempts. This will be the NBA's Moneyball moment, helping teams find talent in places they never thought to look.

But that's the least of the impact. The NBA has said it's interested in sharing all this data. The more the data is open, the more impact it will have.

Entrepreneurs could build apps and analytics. Combine an NBA data app with a chip in your shoe and compare your movements in a game to that of your favorite pro player — a super-sophisticated version of Nike Sparq. Imagine what happens when hedge fund supercomputer jockeys start crunching these numbers. Since they already pick stocks ahead of the market, maybe they can figure out who will win a game before it starts. (Paying attention now, Las Vegas?)

For the mass market, the real exciting action will start when this data becomes part of the way we take in a game. There hasn't been a blowout breakthrough in how we watch a sporting event since BBC TV broadcast the Eric Boon vs. Arthur Danaher lightweight boxing championship in 1939. Before that, a sports fan at home had to listen to the radio. We were blind. TV gave us sight. Everything since then has just given us a better view.

But now we have data that can take us deep inside a sport; it will be like putting the NBA in an MRI machine. Combine that with broadband Internet and tablets, and we'll have ways to watch sports in high-def while probing and learning and asking our own questions. Plus, we have a generation that wants to interact like that. A recent New York Times poll found that 34 percent of the Millennial generation — ages 15 to 35 — watch most of their video online. (For Baby Boomers, it's 10 percent.)

The sports and technology worlds have been creeping up on this moment for a while. In the 1990s, a pioneering company called Quokka Sports tried to mix intense data and video to create a new kind of Internet-based sports experience. The only problem was that Quokka was about 20 years too early, and most people were sipping the Internet through 9600 baud modems that would take an hour to download a single color photo of Nick Van Exel. Though beloved by a niche of fans, Quokka closed shop in 2001. Other entities have since hacked at the ideas Quokka raised — take a look at Major League Soccer's data visualizations.

Al Ramadan, who founded Quokka and now runs a company called Play Bigger, looks at the landscape today and declares it ripe for a new-era Quokka. "Will there be a (sports entertainment) industry based on data? Of course," he says. "Will it be as big as video? Probably."

Imagine a new kind of fan experience. The screen shows your game enhanced by any kind of data visualization you want. Maybe you can see where players should have moved on a certain play. Or whether, based on you cocktail of data, a player is having a good game or a bad game - a simple barroom judgment that's always been subjective but could become entirely empirical. Ask your own question and get an answer. (Well, does LeBron run faster on Tuesdays or Fridays? The motion-capture data will precisely calculate his average speed during each game.)

The possibilities are limitless. The great ideas and cool applications are coming. And it will make just watching sports on TV seem...well...like you're listening to boxing on the radio.

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