Sports stats boom sparks new strategies on and off the field


     Being a stat man at basketball games used to be a low-tech pursuit.

     When a player grabbed a rebound, you made a pencil mark next to his name.  Someone else hit a free throw, you made another mark.  And so on.

     But ten years ago the National Basketball Association made a fast break into the information age, and the Milwaukee Bucks signed on to be “guinea pigs,” recalled Bob Wanek, the team’s official scorer.

     “First night, we were so careful to set up the system just right, and then just before the game, lo and behold, a cameraman plugged his apparatus into our (electrical) outlet and shut everything down,” Wanek said.  “Boy, you talk about panic…The next night, we had those outlets plugged up and taped.”

     Such are the trials and tribulations of life in the increasingly high-tech world of sports data.

     In the years since that first snafu, the Bucks have built a courtside statistical system that works smoothly both for computer geeks and basketball junkies.

     And throughout the sports world, many other statisticians, programmers, fans and those answering to all of the above have gotten into the act.  Everything from the scoreboard at Milwaukee County Stadium to golf handicaps has gone the way of the microchip.

     Baseball statistics – as basic to the national pastime as the hot dog or the call to “Play Ball!” – afford Ruthian opportunities for advanced number crunching, as well as for those who enable the number-crunching to take place.  

     Take, for instance, Madison techie Jeff Elwood, who writes and markets statistical software for amateur baseball. Elwood targets his StatTrak 6.0 software to Little League and high school coaches and softball managers.

     “The market is there,” said Elwood, who founded All-Pro Software a few years ago. “That’s why we’re going full force.”

     Marketed in part through advertising in baseball publications, StatTrak 6.0 offers more than 70 statistical categories, and in the future may employ a Windows operating system and real-time statistics, in which a coach using a laptop has immediate access to running totals of statistical categories.

     According to Elwood, StatTrak has proved to be a customer-driven program.

“I wrote the first program, and just listened to what customers told me after that,” he said.

     Now Elwood is looking for people with ideas on how best to market his product.  He also is coming out with a StatTrak package for basketball and is considering another for professional baseball leagues.

Fantasy league frenzy

     Other entrepreneurs have capitalized on the mania known as Rotisserie baseball, a fantasy brand of the game that uses current statistics of actual Major League Baseball players to create teams that participants “own” and manage.

     Ken Sajdak, a Waukesha school teacher, provides statistics to fantasy league baseball coaches through a D Base 3-Plus system.

“When we first started this seven years ago, we did it on paper, and that’s nuts,” Sajdak said.

     For $95 a year, his customers can enjoy a brand of fantasy baseball that Sajdak claims is closer than other packages to the real thing.

     “What I do is a lot more complicated than what other Rotisserie services do. The others will look at, say, how many home runs you hit. My service looks more at when you hit the home runs.”

     By closely matching current pitching and batting statistics, Sajdak considers his package more like a game of simulation game of simulation than a stat program. a sta

     To make his operation more efficient, Sajdak is seeking to connect to the Internet in the hopes of downloading box scores that can be fed directly into his reporting service. Now, he said, he spends too much of his time manually inputting statistics into his computer.  The statistics that Sajdak receives through ESPNet, a new online service devoted to sports information, still have to be input, he exclaimed.

     For some, the time involved in developing, marketing and fine-tuning sports stat software can silence even the grandest obsession.

     Two Waukesha sports fans, Nevin Goldstein and Barry Curci, ran a Rotisserie reporting service for three years before the constant demands of their day jobs compelled them to curtail the business. A scaled-down version of Software Provision Group Ltd., the business now is operated by Goldstein’s father.

     Besides, the boom in sports software has brought a lot of competition onto the field.

     “I do feel that the market is saturated,” Goldstein said. “A lot of leagues I know like to do the statistics themselves.”

     If Goldstein and Curci could do it over again, they might have used more elaborate marketing techniques, including a “glossy type of brochure and bigger and more creative advertisements.”  Daily reporting of statistics might have won some customers too, Goldstein added.

Playing the percentages

     The growing taste for computer-generated numbers among baseball hobbyists mirrors the trend on the field, where computers are infusing new relevance to the sports cliché “playing the percentages.”

     It isn’t unusual to see Major League Baseball managers hunched over computer printouts, looking for the numbers that will tell them whom to play in leftfield tonight or which shortstop/second-baseman combination turns the most double plays while a particular pitcher is on the mound.

     Since the late 1980s, baseball-by-the-numbers has been personified by manager Tony LaRussa, whose Oakland A’s have won three American League pennants during his tenure. A data-driven computer baseball game bearing LaRussa’s name gets high marks from local software retailers.

     But mastering the stats isn’t everything. Currently, the A’s have the worst win-loss record in the American League. Still, baseball people regularly turn to their computers to inform and to persuade. Dennis Sell, a part-time statistician for the Milwaukee Brewers, used Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software to chart stolen bases during the past five decades, and also crunched a few numbers to show how the Brewers attendance has lagged over the years despite having some pretty competitive teams.

     In comparison to other clubs, the Brewers exercise some restraint in their use of statistics, according to Jon Greenberg, the Brewers’ assistant director for media relations.

     “Phil (Garner, the team’s manager) is not so statistically oriented,” Greenberg said. “He’s more gut-baseball decisions…You get too tied up with numbers, you lose perspective on what’s going on out there.”

     A preoccupation with statistics, Greenberg noted, might make a manager overly conscious of how certain hitters do against certain pitchers. In a key situation, the manager might be too quick to pinch-hit for a batter about to face a familiar nemesis, even if that batter were in the midst of a hitting streak or tended to be a good clutch hitter.

Scoreboard displays

     Just because Garner’s managerial style isn’t stat-driven doesn’t mean that anyone else in the ballpark is going to be starved for statistics.

     Those covering Brewers games receive a 10- to 18-page statistical report, filled with information supplied daily by Major League Baseball and by Elias Sports Bureau, a New York City statistics-compiling firm.

     Fans in the stands get their statistical offerings through the stadium scoreboard. The software, written in 1982-83 by Atlanta consultant Rick Marucci, allows scoreboard operators to partition the board into sections, providing for more flexibility and creativity in the display of information.

     The program, which integrated several software systems, also allows the combination of video and animation.  Another new feature enhanced the system’s operating speed, a necessary tool to help the scoreboard information match the flow of the game, noted Terry Peterson, director of stadium administration.

     “The software advances have more than made up for the absence of hardware changes,” she said.

Low-tech backup

     As the baseball business steals into the information age, the National Basketball Association has made a full-court press on its drive toward technology.  

     For instance, all of the NBA’s coaches have been provided with IBM Think Pads, portable computers that can be used to diagram plays or keep statistics. And the Bucks are among the teams experimenting with laptop computers at the scorer’s table.

     Observers of the team’s courtside staff have been amazed by the calm they’ve shown during system failures, Wanek boasted. Apparently they’ve had a lot of practice.

     “No matter how bad things get, you can always go back to paper and pencil,” he said.

The Business Journal, Milwaukee, 06/25/94