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Courtesy of STATS LLC.

Starting this season, six SportVU cameras like the one shown above capture the action inside every NBA arena.

Race for data feeds the sports analytics revolution

by Mitch Goldich
Dec 12, 2013


Mitch Goldich/MEDILL

The cameras generate a tremendous amount of data, which STATS can turn into usable nuggets for fans, scouts and coaches.

Mitch Goldich/MEDILL

Watch a demonstration of the impact SportVU technology can have on basketball and other sports.


Joakim Noah crouches in the center circle, squatting over the Bulls logo in the middle of the United Center floor. Chris Bosh walks over and faces him, with his hands on his hips. The timekeeper puts 12 minutes on the clock.

Two of the Eastern Conference’s reigning all-star big men prepare for the jump ball, a play as old as basketball itself. Wilt, Kareem, Shaq— all the greats started their games the same way. So the opening of tonight’s battle between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat feels just like any other game from any other era.

Except this is December 2013, so six SportVU motion-detecting cameras overhead will capture every movement from the jump ball to the final buzzer. This is the year everything in the NBA has changed.

Fewer than 20 miles northwest of the arena, in an office building in the suburb of Northbrook, somebody is monitoring the data spit out by the cameras.

“There’s typically somebody here 24/7,” said Brian Kopp, senior vice president of sports solutions at STATS LLC.

STATS is the company changing the game. They make the cameras. For this data mining collective, 2013 has been a coming out party of sorts.

“We started in the ‘80s as a baseball data company,” Kopp said. “We’ve always been around primarily as the facilitator. If a media company or a team wants to do analytics, it all starts with access to data. And more often than not, they’ll wind up talking to us.”

When Kopp arrived at STATS a few years ago, the company pushed to improve what he calls “unique content.” One major result is the SportVU (pronounced sport-view) camera.

Six motion detecting cameras now film the game at 25 frames per second from the rafters of every NBA arena. They track every player and the ball, enabling statisticians to compile data and turn it into usable nuggets.

New data sets can offer more context. If a player grabs six rebounds, it’ll be in any box score. SportVU can also determine how many rebounding opportunities he had. If he took 20 shots, SportVU will know how many he created for himself and how many were set up by teammates. Plus how many of each he made.

SportVU cameras have tracked NBA data for a few seasons, but two major changes thrust it into the spotlight this year.

First, it’s no longer voluntary. The NBA made sure every arena was outfitted this offseason.

Second, started featuring the stats prominently. Data the teams had previously guarded in secrecy is now available to the public.

“We’re excited just because it’s something we’ve been working on for years behind the scenes,” Kopp said. “To us, the exciting part is that this is just the starting point. There’s a lot more to it than what people see on the site.”

The stats are now a part of the mainstream conversation too, not relegated to the deep corners of the Internet. Bill Simmons included separate SportVU “revelations” about 13 different teams in one recent column. Isiah Thomas and Vinny Del Negro discussed it on NBA TV in November.

While fans may understand the impact of the technology better because they can see some stats online, or read Simmons’ take on them, Kopp said it’s that first point that matters the most.

“Everyone has it,” Kopp said. “It’s not going away. It will start to influence the way people make decisions. There’s been a change in the conversation. It’s less about ‘Should we do it?’ and more about ‘How will we use it?’”

And Kopp thinks the teams quickest to adopt it will get a leg up.

“If they don’t want to use it,” Kopp said, “they may be missing out on an advantage that another team’s going to get over them.”

Meanwhile, back in the United Center, the Bulls are playing once again without Derrick Rose. The former MVP has a torn meniscus. A decade ago, the Bulls might have focused on how to replace the 20.8 points and 6.8 assists per game he’s averaged for his career.

SportVU offers a deeper look. During 10 games this year, Rose touched the ball 83.2 times per game, 74.6 of them in the front court. He held the ball for more than 6 minutes per game, among the top totals in the league. His assists created 15.2 points per 48 minutes of action. This is the production the Bulls need to replace.

Rebounding is one key to any game. The Bulls enter this contest third in the league in total rebounds. The Heat are dead last. But there’s a problem with “counting” stats, which measure accumulation, as opposed to “rate” stats, which measure frequencies. The number of three-pointers a player makes doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how many he’s attempted.

The number of possessions per game, field goal percentage and defensive field goal percentage all affect rebounding totals. So the Bulls’ leading rebounders, Carlos Boozer (8.8 per game) and Noah (8.4) may grab more per game than Miami’s Bosh and LeBron James (5.8 each). But SportVU shows that Boozer and Noah only come down with 64.2 percent and 52.8 percent of their total rebounding chances, respectively. Bosh and James grab 60.4 and 72.2, respectively. SportVU data exposes efficiency.

Sample size is the scourge of the analytics movement. Expanding the SportVU technology to every NBA arena doesn’t make the data more accurate, it just makes the samples larger and more meaningful.


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