In November 2013, the NBA released a statistical database based on Stats LLC’s SportVU camera and software system. As the promotional video for the system explains, SportVU is a tracking system consisting of six cameras installed in the stadium and propriety software which captures and analyzes the movement of the ball and all the players on the court. Although most of the data is kept private by teams, some has been made publicly available including metrics such as players’ speed and distance, rebounding efficiency, and defensive impact. Along with measuring individual statistics, the system visualizes player movement to portray the physical relationship of players as they move around. Despite its high cost, SportVU is now utilized by every NBA team and four collegiate teams (Duke, Marquette, Louisville, and Colorado State).
Although the system combines statistics and moving images in an unique fashion, we still need to be skeptical of the claims from the company or writers touting SportVU as revolutionary, since media have been employed in the context of professional and collegiate sports as early as the 1880s as a way to monitor and evaluate athletic performance. (For two examples from the mid-1910s see here and here). What makes SportVU an interesting case is that it is a prominent example of site-specific training technology being marketed directly to fans (and not just coaches or teams) by media producers and sports leagues. The promotional video informs viewers that they can conduct their own statistical analysis by going to NBA.com or NBA TV. And not only is this statistical information made available to the public, the NBA even provides tutorials on how to most effectively utilize it.
Discourses around the so-called “analytics revolution” in professional sports primarily focus on whether advanced statistical metrics actually make teams better or they are as Charles Barkley claims “crap some people who are really smart made up to try and get in the game.” SportVU provides fans with a greater stake in the debate by suggesting that they can use the same technology (albeit different data) that statistically-inclined NBA executives rely on. Training media has been an enduring part of the sporting landscape, albeit one that has largely escaped the public’s attention until recently. With a wealth of visual and statistic information already available to front offices, increasingly media in stadiums is being packaged for spectators to analyze at home.
Great example, Alex; I wonder
Great example, Alex; I wonder how much the public display and circulation of such specialist technology changes the perception and the aesthetics of sports more generally: during the last World Cup soccer, the organic store in my neighborhood campaigned with a poster displaying a tactical diagram. While being much more banal (and more old-fashioned) than the SportVU, this proved to me that a more scientific/abstract aesthetic can signify sports in popular culture just as much as individual stars and 'action'. Additionally, a newly founded, rather high brow, Dutch online newspaper, regularly features the topic of big data in soccer. Not all spectators of sports might use the new tools, but the look of sports is surely transformed by the increasing ubiquity of 'analytics'.
Thank you for your comment. I
Thank you for your comment. I completely agree that the perception of sports is changing thanks to the public display of these types of analytic technology. Along with your really interesting examples, it seems that televised broadcasts of sporting events are constantly devising new ways of visually representing this type of data. And certainly movies like Moneyball and shows such as NFL Matchup (where ESPN talking heads analyze coaches’ tapes to preview upcoming games) have brought the technology to the forefront and glamorized it to a certain degree. It does however seem to be unevenly applied across different sports. While NBA teams and fans have access to the SportVU information, it does not seem to have really been incorporated into the TV broadcasts. Further, I wonder if the scientific aesthetic is primarily being used now to reinforce already dominant narratives within sports (ie LeBron James is historically great or the Patriots’ Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL). But that said, I do think that this type of big data has already changed the visual culture of sports and will continue to do so across a wide range of new and established media.
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