2012 SSAC Preview: A look at the Soccer Analytics panel

This post is the third and final preview article of the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference from a soccer perspective.  In this post I will discuss the Soccer Analytics panel.

As I said in the first part of my preview, I first attended the SSAC in 2010.  It turned out to be very good timing as the Conference was expanding beyond from its baseball and basketball core and bringing on panelists from other sports.  There wasn’t a soccer analytics panel that year, but there was an “Emerging Analytics” panel that brought together front office personnel from American football (Paraag Marathe of the San Francisco 49ers) and soccer (Mike Forde of Chelsea and Simon Wilson of Manchester City) as well as a (gridiron) football analytics blogger (Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders).  The reception for the panel was massive; I tried to attend the session a few minutes early and found out that all the seats had been taken from the previous session!

It looks like the SSAC organizers took notice of the response because last year they gave football and soccer dedicated sessions of their own.  The Soccer Analytics panel was comprised of Blake Wooster (Prozone), Ian Graham (Decision Technology), Steven Houston (Chelsea), Gavin Fleig (Manchester City), and Bruno Aziza (Microsoft).  With the exception of Aziza, all of the panelists were well known in the soccer analytics community and represented distinct elements of the analytics value chain, from data collection to analysis to end-user application.  I’m pleased to say that I’ve gotten to know all of the panelists since the meeting and have met them at other conferences such as Leaders in Performance.

This year’s Soccer Analytics panel differs from last year in that it is composed entirely of end-users of analytics.  Steven Houston and Gavin Fleig return, although Houston has since moved from Chelsea to Hamburg SV.  Marc Stein, the ESPN NBA reporter who did such an excellent job moderating last year’s panel, also returns in the same capacity.  The newcomers to the panel are Drew Carey, actor/comedian and part-owner of Seattle Sounders FC, and Alexi Lalas, former US national team player, general manager of a number of MLS teams, and now studio analyst for ESPN’s soccer broadcasts.

Here are the main guiding questions for this year’s panel from the SSAC site:

  • What role can analytics play in the world’s favorite sport?
  • How can analytics be used to field the best team formation?
  • How can analytics help clubs find players that would suit them best?
  • What are the challenges that face soccer clubs in adopting analytics and how can they be addressed?

These questions could yield some interesting and varied answers from the members of the panel.  Houston and Fleig’s answers would reflect those of someone who operates between the players and technical and ownership staff.  I imagine — hope! — that Carey will address these questions from the perspective of an owner.  Perhaps Lalas will answer them not only from the perspective of a former general manager of a professional soccer team, but also that of a former professional player and now someone involved in the sports media.  So there will be a variety of end-user perspectives — player, performance analyst, sporting director, owner, media — that could be important to a soccer analytics company like mine.

The one charge that could be made against the Soccer Analytics panel is that there are no representatives of the upstream elements of the analytics value chain.  There is no one from a sports data company, nor anyone from a soccer analytics company or blog.  Why isn’t there someone up there like Blake Wooster of Prozone or John Coulson of Opta, or analysts like Chris Anderson, Sarah Rudd, or me?

The best answer that I can think of to the above question is that as a soccer analyst, and as a soccer analytics company, it is important to know what end-users believe to be important in order to deliver products and services most relevant to them.  (If you’re a blogger, you can write on anything you want; if you’re a company, it’s a different story.)  Soccer analytics has grown at a rapid rate in the three years since I started Soccermetrics and particularly in the eighteen months since I formed my company, but it remains a very immature field compared to analytics in other sports such as baseball or basketball.  At the rate that the field is developing, perhaps there will be an analyst or a startup CEO on the panel next year, but right now it is useful to listen to what end-users view to be important, even if they don’t know exactly what they want from analytics.

Far more important on the panel is the presence of a skeptic.  By that I mean someone who holds some reservations about the role of analytics in sport yet is willing to engage in constructive debate with those who are.  It sounds very odd to ask people who question analytics to appear at a sports analytics conference, but I feel that they are exactly the people who should be there.  Frankly, the SSAC is starting to become wrapped up in itself and some sessions drift off into fantasy, and it could use the presence of those who can keep the dreamers relevant.  The problem is that I don’t know who to invite, or whether they would even accept.  Perhaps Paul Gardner (Soccer America) would be such a person, but I can’t think of other names.

Comments and reservations aside, I will attend the Soccer Analytics panel with an open mind, and I do look forward to meeting all of the members at the Conference.