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Analytics-based approach paying off in professional sports

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The inclusion of analytics into decision making is paying huge dividends in the world of professional sports

In 2015, ESPN published an article titled “The Great Analytics Rankings.” This project examined all four major North American professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB) and ranked every team “on the strength of each franchise’s analytics staff, its buy-in from execs and coaches, its investment in biometric data and how much its approach is predicated on analytics.” From most to least, the ranks were: “All in,” “Believers,” “One foot in,” “Skeptics” and “Nonbelievers.”

Since 2015, each of these professional leagues has crowned several champions and had successful (and not so successful) teams. Richard Little, an analytics aficionado, decided to take a look at the list of champions and various success stories to see how tied they were to analytics. I highly recommend taking a look at the charts and information linked above.

Here are some notable highlights:

  • No NFL teams were considered to be “All in.”
  • In all four major sports combined, only one team that was not ranked “All in” or “Believers” have won a Championship (only one of twelve).
  • The sole exception was in the NFL, when the Denver Broncos (“Skeptics”) won the Super Bowl in the 2015-2016 season.
  • Winning percentages between “All in/Believers” were contrasted to the percentages for “Nonbelievers.” The largest disparity between these groups was in the NBA. The NFL had the smallest degree of difference between “All in/Believers” and “Nonbelievers.”

The Buffalo Bills were ranked as “One foot in” when ESPN did their analysis in 2015. Russ Brandon indicated the team would be committing to a “robust” analytics department, with Mike Lyons being hired to head the group. Those who compiled the rankings cited head coach Doug Marrone’s in-game decisions as deviating from analytics-based approaches. Rex Ryan had been hired, but had not yet had a team take to the field under his tenure at the time of the article. His time with the New York Jets was described as using more “traditional game management.”

During this offseason, the analytics department for the Buffalo Bills received a shake-up. Luis Guilamo takes over for Mike Lyons. Based on a slew of evidence (discussed here and argued about at length here), it would appear the Bills remain as “One foot in” at best.