One of the buzzwords that is often used in sports analytics circles is “uptake.” As in, how do you increase managerial uptake of analytical ideas? How do you improve uptake of advanced stats among soccer fans and journalists?
While presentation and argumentation is clearly important, I tend to believe more in the “the longer you’re there, the longer you’re there” approach when it comes to the adoption of new ideas. Often the best way to increase the likelihood of others accepting and incorporating a novel concept is to simply keep talking about it, regularly hammering home its usefulness and application until one day it’s considered normal—obvious, even.
There is evidence that we are already well on our way with soccer advanced stats like Expected Goals (though they are not without controversy), particularly when Arsene Wenger mentioned them publicly for the first time a couple of years ago.
Sports media also plays a huge role in this normalization process. Consider for example the work of 19th century baseball statistics pioneer Henry Chadwick, who is partially credited with developing the first baseball box score and developed most of the pre-modern baseball statistics like batting averages and ERAs.
As far I can tell, Chadwick didn’t rely on powerpoint presentations or visualizations or any other clever gimmicks to sell the world on his stats, but simply printed them in the paper, where they were later rediscovered in the 1920s on their way to becoming the default method of recording baseball games. It helped immensely too that Chadwick wasn’t some crank, but a respected sports journalist himself.
Similarly, while Expected Goals are not yet part of the mainstream football lexicon, there are signs they may be used more frequently on networks like Sky Sports and ESPN, either on the air or online. And while media readership may be increasingly splintered, many fans still check online box scores. Some of these may eventually incorporate advanced stats in addition to shots, assists and possession numbers.
“We’re working with digital to get more advanced stats in our [online] box scores,” Paul Carr, ESPN’s senior researcher on soccer statistics, tells me over the phone.
“We’ve had conversations behind the scenes about it. Now, it’s about aligning priorities, and having a strong [advanced stats] contingent online and viewable, so fans are not always relying on a twitter feed or TV broadcast to get them.”
Broadcast television by contrast poses more of a challenge than an online boxscore, as there is a didactic hurdle that needs to be overcome in a very short period of time. Even so, advanced stats are useful in making comparisons between players for example, or fostering debate about a certain match event or team behaviour. These examples can also shore up the legitimacy of the unfamiliar measures.
“Whatever the metric, adding context like a ranking or a comparison is always really key to get these accepted,” Carr says.
And even if a five minute broadcast segment isn’t enough time to get across the concept of something like Expected Goals, they can at least provide an introduction. They also put the onus on the viewer to do their own research, much in the same way the slow introduction of SABR stats in mainstream baseball broadcasts has compelled fans to google ‘BABIP’ and ‘OPS’, if they even have to do that anymore.
Along with ESPN, Sky Sports—whose Monday Night Football broadcasts have been lauded for their forward-thinking approach to tactical analysis in the pre and post-game segments—are equally positive about incorporating more advanced statistics in their pre and post game shows.
“MNF has been a leader in introducing various types of statistical analysis (average positions and formations, shot conversion %, running data etc.),” MNF producer Jack Hazzard tells me via email. “It would be reasonable to expect that we will be seeking to continue to do that with the increased use of advanced statistics going forward.”
Hazzard also strongly emphasises the importance of not dumbing things down for a perceived ‘mainstream’ football audience. “Our aim is always to help inform, entertain and educate our viewers and to give them an insight into the types of an level of analysis performed inside elite football clubs themselves.”
Hazzard adds that by leading the viewer, rather than kowtowing to them, they have established a reputation where fans will expect more.
“It is always a challenge to balance the informing and educating with the entertaining but we are fortunate to have developed a show on which people expect and enjoy a high level of detailed analysis and as such that at least partly negates the need to over-simplify things,” he writes.
Media ‘uptake’ is not a panacea for the endless analytics debate, but it is a major point of entry for those analysts trying to convince clubs their methods can save them money while also pushing clubs higher up the table (or at least provide them more stability). While the normalization of advanced stats won’t happen overnight, the longer we talk about them the more acceptance they will gain.