On February 23, 2015, ESPN released “The Great Analytics Rankings”. This study ranked all 122 professional sports franchises in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.
The ranking criteria were “the strength of each franchise’s analytics staff, its buy-in from execs and coaches, its investment in biometric data and how much its approach is predicated on analytics”.
The team that ESPN determined embraced data the most was the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Sixers were in Miami to play the Heat the night the report was released.
Their record at the time was 12-44.
Two years prior, the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie as their general manager. Hinkie used the word “process” at his very first press conference. “We talk a lot about process—not outcome—and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but you reevaluate them all.”
In the two years between his hiring and the release of the ESPN report, Hinkie made a number of controversial moves. He traded away player after player, including the team’s only All-Star, Jrue Holiday.
Sam Hinkie says there’s a difference between having data and how you use the data. For instance, coaches can use statistics to know which plays put their players in the best situations to succeed. They know which players do better posting up, in isolation, in the pick and roll and so on. By digging deeper into the data, Hinkie can determine exactly how much better his players will do in each scenario.
While “Trust the Process” became a rallying call for the Sixers and their fans, impatience got the best of upper management. Sam Hinkie “resigned” as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers on April 6, 2016. On that day, the team’s record was 10-68—even worse than a year earlier, when ESPN ranked the Philadelphia 76ers number one in its “Great Analytics Rankings”.
Despite Hinkie’s departure, the 76ers doubled down on its use of analytics. In October, 2016, the team hired Alex Rucker as the team’s vice president of analytics and strategy. The team’s subsequent hires in the department led to the Sixers having the largest analytics staff in the NBA. Meanwhile, more and more data became available.
Thanks to player-tracking camera systems used in every NBA arena, every NBA team has access to roughly 800,000 lines of data per game. This includes everything from the number of passes made by a player to the distance that player leaves between himself and an opponent when he closes out on a shooter and how effective he is depending on the speed at which he does so.
Everything is trackable, and the data can be overwhelming. How do they deal with it?
According to Rucker, “The amount of information has grown so much that it needs translators. The people who work with me, their job is to translate that mass of data into something that looks like basketball and then use that to inform our decisions.”
Looks like ESPN was on to something in their report three years ago, as was Sam Hinkie. “Trusting the Process” has led the 76ers to a 50-30 record and a current 14-game winning streak at the time of this writing. The team will head to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
So, how has ESPN’s ranking of teams that embrace analytics three years ago correlated with success since?
The Top 10 was the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Astros, Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Oakland Athletics and Chicago Blackhawks.
The combined record of those teams in their most recent season* is 606-510, a 54% winning percentage. The 76ers are about to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. The Houston Astros, with a 70-92 record in the season before the report was released, won their first World Series in 2017. The Houston Rockets currently hold the best record in the NBA. The Boston Red Sox won the AL East in 2017 and the New York Yankees’ 2017 record was their best since 2012.
Only three of the top 10 had a losing record in their most recent season—the Rays, Mavericks and A’s.
As for the teams that ranked at the bottom for embracing analytics?
That illustrious honor goes to the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Jets, Miami Marlins, Tennessee Titans, Colorado Avalanche, Brooklyn Nets, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins, New York Knicks and Philadelphia Phillies.
The combined record of those teams in their most recent seasons is 275-428, a 39% winning percentage. Only two of the bottom 10 had a winning record in their most recent season—the Titans and Chargers, each at 9-7.
While sports franchises are ultimately judged by wins and losses, radio stations are judged by ratings. What we’ve found over the years is stations that invest in their brands, develop their brands, and then—yes, trust the process—are the ones that are successful in the long haul.
Anyone involved in programming or sales at a radio station has felt the butterflies and flat-out nausea of a “ratings day”. It takes just one bad ratings month for even the most seasoned, brilliant programming minds to question themselves.
You’ve done the research study. You’ve seen the recommendations. You’re on board with “The Plan”. You’ve been executing it perfectly.
And then ratings point in the wrong direction for a few months and the questioning begins, like in these hypothetical examples:
“Maybe the morning show should stop doing that benchmark. You know I did see some complaints on Facebook.”
“Maybe we should be playing one more 90’s song an hour. I mean, the songs have tested well.”
“We’re not seeing the bump we expected from ‘Commercial-Free Mondays’. Let’s get rid of it.”
We even do this in the face of completely fact-based data that may show, for example, the morning show benchmark indicates impressive growth, the current music doesn’t correlate with the 90’s music and your positive “fewer commercials than other stations” image is growing while exposing your competitor’s negative “more commercials than other stations” image.
My colleague John Boyne likes to say images are like icebergs. Slow to develop, slow to erode.
Trust the process.
Building images take time, then the ratings follow. It is, unfortunately, not instant gratification.
When you don’t trust the process, you make poor “in the moment” decisions.
Remember what Hinkie said in his first press conference. “We talk a lot about process, not outcome”. Are you focused on the outcome or the process?
When you focus on the outcome, you make the mistake of tying ratings success to specific things too quickly.
For example, if you add an 80s feature to improve your 80s image, you expect that feature to immediately impact ratings. The feature is meant to build the image, then the ratings.
Trust the process.
Like the 76ers, our team knows a little something about translating mass amounts of data into clear, actionable strategy.
Just like professional sports franchises have proven a correlation between embracing data and success, many of our clients have had the same experience.
The real key is once you get the data, once we interpret the data and once you implement “The Plan”….
Trust the process!
*Most recent season is: NFL (2017); MLB (2017); NHL (2017-2018); and NBA (2017-2018)