Fanalytics Podcast: Ezekiel Who? Analytics & the Collective Bargaining Agreement

 

In this episode, Professor Lewis discusses why the Ezekiel Elliott holdout is the most important off-season NFL story. It’s a story about how the collective bargaining agreement’s rules for rookie contracts comes into conflicts with analytics. The conflict occurs because for some positions, like running back, NFL rookie contract rules allow teams to avoid paying market rates for the majority or entirety of players’ careers. The episode talks about how last year’s Todd Gurley and Le’veon Bell deals have gotten us to the point where players may be increasingly willing to hold-out and teams may be less likely to invest in running backs.  

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Fanalytics Podcast: Sports Analytics – Getting Your Foot in the Door

Houston Dynamo Data Analyst and Emory alumni Sean Steffen joins Mike Lewis on this Fanalytics podcast episode where they discuss how to get into the field of sports analytics. Getting your foot in the door can be quite competitive. Sean shares his “non-traditional” journey.

Some background on Sean: In college, he majored in creative writing. From there, he started writing for American Soccer Analysis, a blog that focuses on Major League Soccer. The key to Sean’s success was that he backed up his writing with data and analytics.

The conversation gets a little deep in the weeds and even includes a discussion of the competing programming languages – R and Python. For prospective analysts, Sean recommends learning excel and linear regression.  Mike says SQL, R, and linear regression are good starting points to analyze data.

They also talk modern soccer analytics such as the logic and mechanics behind expected goals.

You can reach Sean on Twitter @SeanSteffen or search him on LinkedIn.

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Fanalytics Podcast: FIFA World Cup Gender Pay Gap

A big topic making headlines right now is the FIFA Women’s World Cup. More specifically, the gender pay gap at the FIFA World Cup.

Professors Mike Lewis and Tom Smith discuss their thoughts on the wage differences between the men and women’s soccer teams on this Fanalytics podcast episode.

Tom also looks at the earning ratios of men and women athletes primarily in the United States.

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Fanalytics Video: NBA Off-Season & Draft

Here’s the latest sports headlines on the Fanalytics video this week! Mike shares his thoughts going into the NBA off-season and the draft happening on Thursday.

 

Fanalytics Podcast: Lucy Rushton and Building Atlanta United FC

How do you build a new team, like the Atlanta United, from the ground up?

In this Fanalytics episode we meet Atlanta United’s Lucy Rushton. As the team’s Head of Technical Recruitment and Performance Analysis, she provides analytics, data and insights that help the team build their roster.  In the conversation with Lucy we talk about two types of analyses.  One part involves the subjective analysis which is watching the players on the field. The other part is the objective analysis which involves data and statistics, emotion is taken out of the analysis. Rushton says it’s important to get a balance between the two in order to drive a successful department.

So what’s the game plan when searching for players for the team? Rushton says to get data and find players that fit in with the club philosophy and playing styles. Styles include players who have fast attacking skills, can entertain, athleticism, and speed. You also have to ask, what are the key attributes of a player for the position they look for? How much do these players cost?

When it comes to statistical forecasting, how much of that do decision-makers want to see? They want to see the insights not the models.

What’s next for Atlanta United? The head scout says the goal is to get better, get another chance to play in the CONCACAF Champions League, and growth in analysis.

In the second half of the episode, we talk about some of the larger lessons related to performing and presenting analytics in any organization. Analytics is seldom a magic bullet for any organizational challenge. More often, analytics informs rather than directs decisions.

Along these lines, we frame the interview with Lucy and the challenge of building a championship roster in terms of decision support realities such as biases in human decision making and the limitations of statistical models.

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Fanalytics Video: NBA Finals & FIFA Women’s World Cup

This week on the Fanalytics video, we discuss the big story lines happening in the NBA finals and FIFA Women’s World Cup. Thanks for checking out the trending sports stories with us on Monday mornings!

Fanalytics Video: NBA Finals

Fanalytics Podcast: Three-Point Field Goal

This week, Professor Mike Lewis and Emory student Alex Notis examine the three-point field goal (also 3-pointer) in the NBA.

The modern NBA has been transformed by the three-point shot.  Points are up, turnovers are down and NBA rosters are now built to shoot the three.

Some key facts…

When the three-point line was introduced in 1986 only 3% of shots were three-point attempts.

This season, 36% of shots were three pointers.

In this episode, we talk about Alex’s project which looks into trends and outcomes related to the three-point shot.

In the second half of the episode, Professor Lewis takes a step back and talks about the concept of expected value.  Expected value is a key concept in sports analytics. In decisions ranging from taking a three-point shot in the NBA, pulling the goalie in hockey, going for 2 in the NFL, or bunting to move a runner to second in MLB, expected value calculations are the key.

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Fanalytics Podcast: Mascots & Sports Team Names

In this Fanalytics podcast episode, we are doing a deep dive into mascots and team names in the sports world. Marketing Professor Mike Lewis, MBA student Al Multani-Kohal, and I kick off the episode by talking about a viral tweet.

A little background before getting to that…

Professor Lewis has been studying issues surrounding team names and mascots for several years.  This OpEd discusses the business case for changing a controversial team name such as the Washington Redskins.  A full series of posts focused on team names and mascots can be found here.

The topic of team names and mascots has since entered the classroom. Professor Lewis teaches a Sports Marketing class and recently gave an assignment where groups of students had to choose a sports brand that they believed could benefit from an updating.  Students were also asked to propose a solution to the potential branding “problem.”

Al’s group got caught up in a Twitter storm after they proposed changing the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators to the Sabercats.

Al says his group looked at North American professional teams that could use rebranding because there wasn’t brand equity. This involved asking:

1.) Was there something that could be perceived as offensive?

2.) Was there a disconnect with how a logo/brand/mascot resonated with its origin stories?

Al says his team analyzed data on the word “predator” and found there were negative connotations associated with it. That’s how this proposal came to light.

In the second part of this episode, Mike and I talk about the history of mascots and some of the most famous brand mascots of all time including Mickey Mouse, Tony the Tiger, and Mario.

We also discuss a couple of controversial Native American mascots – the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins.

 

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Major League Baseball Fandom Report 2019: The “Best” Fans in Baseball

Major League Baseball seems to be perennially in crisis in terms of its relationship with its fan base.  Free agency, strikes, steroids, competitive imbalances, short attention spans of millennials, a lack of stars, an aging fan base, and other factors have been cited to explain why baseball has either lost or is in danger of losing its position as the national pastime.

On the other hand, the league keeps setting revenue records. This article from Forbes reports that baseball has set revenue records for 16 straight years.

When thinking about baseball and its fans, it is safest to say it is a mixed bag of positives and warning signs.  Record revenues show that baseball has been able to develop innovative revenue streams and attract high value sponsors. But there does seem to be trouble on the horizon in terms of the next generation of fans.

In terms of demographics, MLB has one of the oldest fan bases (up there with golf). It is also largely viewed as the most family oriented sport. This is an interesting pattern. An aging fan base is a concern for the future if fans are aging out of attending games.  Of course, an aging fan base is also potentially an increasingly wealthy fan base.  The family orientation is an enormous positive. Sports fandom is largely transmitted through the family and the nature of the game helps bring the next generation into the fold (summer schedule, 81 home games, relatively cheap tickets, etc…).

There is also the issue of “tanking.” Tanking has been most frequently mentioned in the context of the NBA but it’s also a concern for baseball. Losing 100 games has long been considered epic futility. In 2018, the Orioles lost 115 games, the Royals lost 104, and the White Sox lost 100. The Marlins and Tigers lost 98.  Tanking is a fan issue because it speaks to the quality of the product that fans (in certain markets) are asked to buy.

Tanking brings us to the issue of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. While the Collective Bargaining Agreement is usually discussed in terms of the labor relationship between owners and players, the CBA is a critical issue for fandom because this agreement essentially defines how the league operates. For example, the CBA largely defines the rules related to revenue sharing, luxury taxes, and salary caps. These rules directly impact fans by creating the structures that influence player movements and competitive balance.

Baseball is notable for having relatively little revenue sharing and no salary cap. Controlling the distribution of spending by teams matters because there is a significant correlation between spending and winning in baseball.   The Red Sox won the World Series and also led the league with a payroll of about $240 million. At the bottom, The White Sox had a payroll of around $80 million. Remember, the White Sox lost 100 games.

The CBA matters because teams will find strategies that work for their circumstances.  There is some speculation that small market teams like the Royals are using business models that involve developing low cost homegrown talent, trying to win for a few years and then dumping payroll to pursue draft picks. The Royals reduced payroll from $185 million in 2017 to $135 million in 2018. The Royals lost 104 games in 2018 after making the playoffs in 2014 and 2015. In 2018 the Dodgers had the 4th highest payroll at about $195 million.  But that payroll was $59 million less than the previous season’s amount.  This decline allowed the team to drop below the luxury tax threshold. Are these strategies designed to maximize fan enjoyment?

The run-up to the 2019 MLB season has also included a “glacially” slow free agent market.  Eventually, the big name stars signed with teams outside of the major markets. Manny Machado signed with the Padres for $300 million for ten years and Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies for $330 million over 13 years. “Stars” matter to fans. Fans like winners but they also like stars.  While the NBA is and has been for a long time all about stars – Larry, Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron, Steph…. – MLB doesn’t seem to produce household names anymore. This article states that ESPN’s annual ranking of the most famous athletes includes 13 basketball players, 2 table tennis stars and no baseball players.  This lack of “media” stars matters.  Maybe not in the short-term where winning mostly drives attendance but likely in the long-term. When I have looked at the factors that build brand equity in sports, two items really jump out. Winning championships and having a history of Hall of Famers and All Stars.

 

The Best Baseball Brands

My last statement about how brands are built is based on logic and by running numbers on fandom in MLB and other sports leagues. As we enter the 2019 season, it’s time for my annual data based look at MLB fandom across the MLB brands. This analysis starts from questions like “Who has the best fans in Major League Baseball?” and “What are the best brands in MLB?”

These are simple questions without simple answers.  What makes for a great fan or brand?  Fans that show up even when the team is losing?  Fans that are willing to pay the most?  Fans that are willing to follow a team on the road or social media?  Even after we agree on the question(s), answering it is also a challenge.  How do we adjust for the fact that one team might have gone on a miraculous run that filled the stadium?  Or perhaps another team suffered a slew of injuries?  How do we compare fan behavior in a market like New York with fans in a place like Milwaukee?  What if a team just opened a new stadium?  Did the fans stream in to see the building or to see the team?

For the past few years, I have been studying fandom across professional and college sports.  My approach to evaluating fan bases is to use data to develop statistical models of fan interest (more details here).  The key is that these models are used to determine which cities fans are more willing to spend or follow their teams after controlling for factors like market size and short-term variations in performance.

The “Overall” rankings are based on three sub-rankings – Fan Equity, Social Equity and Road Equity.  Fan Equity is a revenue premium based metric that compares the team’s box office results with league standards.  In other words, Fan Equity assesses how much fans are willing to “attend and spend” relative to fans across the league.  The KEY idea is that we measure this while controlling for team success and market characteristics like incomes and populations.

  • Fan Equity is a great metric for assessing the CURRENT level of passion or engagement in a local fan base.

Social Equity is focused on the team’s social media followings (Facebook and Twitter).  Again, the rankings are based on how a team’s social media results compare across the league after controlling for team success.

  • The Social Equity metric provides insight into the team’s POTENTIAL fan passion.

The third metric is Road Equity.  This metric is based on a statistical model that looks at how teams draw incremental fans when on the road.  The KEY idea is that draw outside of the home market reveals something about a club’s national appeal.

  • Road Equity provides a metric of passion beyond the local market. This passion can be positive (love the Cubs) or negative (hate the Yankees).

I could go on.  In the past I have developed additional metrics related to win sensitivity or price sensitivity.  Willingness to attend even when the team loses probably says something about loyalty.  Fans that don’t watch a loser might be termed bandwagon fans.  Willingness to pay is a great marketing metric.  Willingness to pay to see a team that isn’t winning is another great indication of loyalty.  These metrics are available upon request (mike [dot] lewis [at] emory [dot] edu – FYI, I don’t look at the comments) but I want to keep this article brief.

So, we have three metrics with different pluses and minuses.  In the quest to find an overall winner, I use a weighted average of the three metrics (more weight on the Fan Equity metric).  This may not be the right weighting but it’s usually a good idea to emphasize how customers actually spend.

 

The Winners

Overall, the group of clubs that comprise the Top 6 contains little in the way of surprises.  The Red Sox rank number one and are followed by the Yankees, Giants, Dodgers, Cubs and Cardinals.  The Red Sox are perennially strong and finished first last year.  They also won the world series.  Boston is probably the best sports town in America.

In general, the clubs at the top of the list share these same traits.  They are all able to motivate fans to attend and spend as they all possess great attendance numbers and relatively high prices.  More to the point, these teams are even able to draw well and command price premiums when they are not winning.  Historically, the Cubs are the best example of this.

The list of winners probably raises an issue of “large” market bias.  However, keep in mind that the methodology is designed to control for home market effects.  The method is explicitly designed to control for differences in market demographics (and team performance).  While the “winners” tend to come from the bigger and more lucrative markets, other major market teams do not fair particularly well (White Sox, A’s).  There is also a more subtle point.  The large market teams likely have the best fan bases because they often have significant histories of success and are often featured in the media.

The topic of how these brands are built over time is another one of my favorite things to talk about.  I think it’s mostly two (highly correlated) things – championships and stars. Building brand equity is a fascinating sports topic and I think it’s a difficult one for teams (in small markets) to manage.  Will the current popular strategy of cycles of tanking and competing yield enough winning and “temporary” star to build brands?

 

The Bottom

The bottom of the list features the Marlins, White Sox, Indians, Athletics and Rays.  It is interesting that the bottom also includes teams from major markets such as the Bay Area, Chicago and Miami. The markets with two teams seem to yield dramatically different results within each market. I think this reveals something fundamental about fandom.  Fan bases are communities and many fans want to be a part of the most popular group. It is a simple theory but the end result is that the second team in a market will struggle to compete. Many fans are drawn to the bigger and more dominant community – Yankees, Cubs, Giants or Dodgers rather than the Mets, White Sox, A’s or Angels.

The case of the Marlins reveals another common problem for franchises. The Marlins finish is a reflection of how the team struggles on multiple dimensions. Attendance is often in the bottom 5 of the league despite being located in a major metro area.  Pricing is also below average for MLB.  Why do the Marlins struggle?  Lots of reasons.  Florida weather, a short history (fandom is often generational), a history of small payrolls and bad teams, and Miami being a transient city.

The Indians is an interesting case as well.  Cleveland is a passionate sports town.  But when you look at the numbers there is not a lot of support. An open question is how much of the problem is the Indian’s branding? The Indians have made moves to shift from the Native American imagery but have retained the team name.  I suspect that half measures might be the worst approach.

 

The Movers

In terms of year over year comparisons, there is a good amount of stability on the list.  This is a good sign since sports brands should evolve slowly.  Some notable movers on the list were the Blue Jays and Phillies moving up and the Diamondbacks and Indians dropping down. The Blue Jays illustrate an important feature of the model. When I calculate the brand “premiums” I use the most recent three seasons. This is intended to provide stable but evolving measures of brand equity. In the case of the Blue Jays, the improvement in ranking was mostly driven by attendance growth in 2016 and 2017. In the case of the Phillies the improvement was about growing attendance coupled with relatively high prices.

 

The 2019 Complete List

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