This post is dedicated to my musings about the footy industry and the role of analytics both now and in the future. There won't be much in the way of numbers or match analysis. So if opinion pieces aren't your thing, feel free to tune out.
There was some lively discussion on Twitter last night following this tweet:
What do you think is the main reason the AFL doesn't have a strong analytics culture? (re for list mgmnt/tactics)
— Nick Welch (@NickWelch51) August 16, 2016
I initially took this to be referring to the lack of a strong analytics culture among fans.1 I soon realised that Nick was talking more about the lack of analytics culture inside footy clubs themselves. At it's core, I think the two of these are closely related. Each one has the ability and potential to drive the other. But each also has different challenges that are holding it back. It's worthwhile to separate these two and look at their culture a bit more closely. Today I'm going to look at "analytics culture" at a club level. In a follow-up article, I'll step back and look at how analytics is embraced by fans.
Why Do Analytics Not Play a Bigger Role in the Club?
1. Hiring Skilled Professionals is Expensive Business
To be an effective head analyst at a footy club you would need to have a lot of skills. At a minimum, you would need to have knowledge and a degree in some sort of analytical discipline (probably Maths/Stats but maybe Finance/Actuarial Science/Other Sciences), be proficient in using and maintaining a relational database (most likely SQL), have fantastic statistical programming ability (probably at least R, Excel2 and whatever proprietary software the club may already use), be able to effectively visualise and communicate your ideas to those that don't understand stats (probably proficient in Tableau plus developed teaching/training skills), at least a basic understanding of fitness methods, injury and sports science, as well as an intimate understanding of the sport and it's surrounding landscape including historical and current day trends. On top of this you would need to be the sort of person that can manage an important role in a business by yourself with little to no help from any others (so probably significant past experience).
People with this sort of skill set are few and far between and usually rewarded with 6+ figure income from the private sector. Some may work for less out of a love for the sport, but it's not going to be for a pittance.
With a hard cap on footy department spending looking likely, finding money for an analyst will involve cutting money from other areas. A tough sell for any club.
AFL hasn't seen the analytics boom in the same way that bigger sports like baseball, basketball and soccer have, partly because the market is smaller. Finding a spare $100k is harder for an AFL club than it is for the New York Yankees.
2. Some Clubs Think They're Already "Doing Analytics"
This reply from InsightLane hits on a very good point:
— InsightLane (@insightlane) August 16, 2016
The word "analytics" has been brandished with the "boring" tag of maths. Let me make this clear right here, "analytics" does not just mean using anything with numbers in it. When I use the word "analytics", it's shorthand for "looking really closely at something to try and understand more about it".
When I say clubs could benefit by using analytics, I don't mean we should whip out a big spreadsheet and all sit around it debating the difference between a player with 2.4 clearances per game and a player with 2.6.
What I really mean is that we should look very closely at each game and each player, watch the moments that change a game, study the difference between how a player functions in the forward line compared to when they play on the ball, understand which set plays bring more success than others and why they work. Doing this for your team *might* be possible by just reviewing the tape. But you need to do this for every single team and every single player in the league to gain a tactical advantage.
This is where the numbers come in. We just don't have the time, or in some cases the ability, to watch every single one of these things happen in real time and remember how they affected every other single moment in the game. But if we have the data, we don't need to. All the remembering and close watching is done for us.
A good analyst can find real patterns and plays in both your opponents and your own team, that you would have otherwise missed. They can also help you identify which of the patterns you are sure are there, don't really exist. This is where good "analytics" gives you a competitive advantage.
Clubs may think they're using analytics to make decisions on players and teams but it's far more likely that they are using "numbers" like KPI's and player ratings without really understanding what these mean in the context of a game.
Think of some of the big tactical experiments we have seen this year. We've seen clubs play without ruckmen, we've seen Essendon play all season without the majority of their first team, we've seen the highest scoring team in the league, Adelaide, play almost every game with an extra man in defence.
Analytics can help us figure out whether Adelaide are high scoring because of the individual skill of their forward line, or whether they are high scoring because of tactical decisions that happen much further down the ground. Once we know this, we can go about stopping it.
3. Changing the Culture of a Footy Club is Tough Barrier to Break
AFL coaching staff, as a group, mostly consist of ex-players. This makes sense. Who else could have a better knowledge of the game than a person who has spent their whole life fully immersed in it? Nobody.3
The problem is, that by being on an AFL list from age 18, you often have to forgo higher education. While others are training the analytical, tactical and problem solving parts of their brain at university and in the workforce, an AFL player is by definition, training other parts of their body and mind.
A game of footy is a far more complex tactical battle than any game of chess could ever be. It only makes sense to have people who have trained in tactics, logic and game theory as part of your team making tactical decisions.
However, it's understandably very difficult for a senior coach (an ex-player himself) to give up any level of control to an outsider. It requires a level of trust in a person and idea that he himself knows rather little about. Communication and education is the key to developing this trust. But that is easier said than done.
4. There are Clubs Branching into Analytics, and They are the Ones Having Success
Okay, I lied. This one is not really a reason why analytics are not used, but a hopeful look to the future. As far as I know,
currently there are no full-time employees working for any club in a primarily stats/analytics role, 4 but that doesn't mean that some clubs aren't experimenting with analytics and opening up their culture to change.
Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn seems to be a proponent of the scientific method in footy, and I personally know of researchers and analysts that have done work with both Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs. I also know that the Senior Football Analyst at Adelaide maintains a fairly active presence in the online analysis community.
So, the three clubs that I know are at least opening their mind to advanced analytics include; Hawthorn - possibly the most successful team of all time, the Dogs - a plucky young side that is far exceeding most people's expectations, and Adelaide - a club that has had to cope with more setbacks in the last 4 years than most have in decades, yet still remain a very good chance of winning it all in the first week of October.
Whether these clubs are benefiting from a change of culture or this just a coincidence remains to be seen.5 But as I see it, there are some promising signs that the AFL may be starting to embrace analytics, although we still have a long way to go and many hurdles to jump.
In my next article I have a look at the analytics culture outside of the club rooms, among the fans, the TV stations and the online "fanalysts".
- Perhaps I have been spending too much time following the European Football "fanalytics" community who are currently going through somewhat of a culture crisis, finding any constructive criticism about people's work quickly devolves into shit-slinging.
- This is not meant to read sarcastically. To suggest that anybody from the outside has a more intricate knowledge of the game than ex-players and long-time coaches would be laughable.
- Turns out I do not know much. Most, if not all clubs have full-time analytics staff. Whether these are strategic analysts or just glorified tech support probably varies from club to club. See the comments below.
- We'd need some sort of long-term analytics project to find out!