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.