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Mitch Goldich/MEDILL

A look inside the Sport Science studio-slash-science-lab, where they film segments for ESPN.

Race for data feeds the sports analytics revolution- 3

by Mitch Goldich
Dec 12, 2013


Courtesy of Sport Science.

Sport Science usually takes a 3D scan to measure athletes' bodies. The machine can handle reporters too.


The Bulls announced a crowd of 22,125 for the Heat game, but not everyone spends the whole time in their seat. As halftime rolls into the third quarter, eight fans camp around a television in the concourse above section 329. The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars, with a combined record of 5-19, are playing a  mostly meaningless football game— neither team has a chance at the playoffs.

LeBron James, perhaps the greatest athlete of his generation, perhaps the greatest basketball player of any generation, is in the house. His otherworldly talents are on display for 33 minutes of game time. Yet a subset of fans in the arena care more about whether or not Cecil Shorts III will score a touchdown for Jacksonville.

Inside the arena, the Bulls cope with the loss of their best offensive player. On a TV screen in the concourse, so do the Texans. Arian Foster, the NFL’s 2010 rushing leader, has missed four straight games. The Texans have lost them all.

Foster is a unique specimen. One of his strongest attributes is the ability to make quick lateral jukes. When Foster cuts, his foot bends up toward the shin, and he makes initial ground contact with the inside of his foot. That maneuver enables him to explode out of a cut with up to 4 Gs of acceleration.

This is not obvious to most onlookers. The observation was made in ESPN’s Sport Science studio.

Pull open the front door to the Sport Science office and the first thing you see is a tall trophy case stocked with Emmy awards. After all, this is Hollywood. Well, Burbank. But you get the idea.

Sport Science is a division of BASE Productions, a company that owns nearly two dozen properties specializing in reality, documentary and unscripted television. Not all of its Emmy wins are from Sport Science.

The Sport Science command center is a hybrid science lab and television studio. Most sports fans know about it thanks to the host John Brenkus, who hops on SportsCenter to narrate segments with athletes in the studio, or break down top plays from various games.

“We think of it as equal parts science and entertainment,” said associate producer Eli Baldrige. “We have to determine what will be entertaining for the audience from a scientific perspective."

Inside the building, Sport Science has a football field, a basketball court and props ranging from tackling dummies and punching bags to motion sensors.

Like STATS, Sport Science is in the data collection business. But the company gathers a lot more research in the lab. Before working out, athletes stand on a scanning machine that takes a three-dimensional image and calculates everything from wing span to calf girth. That’s how Sport Science discovered Julio Jones’ left arm is longer than his right.

Jones, the Atlanta Falcons’ all-pro wide receiver, never knew that until Sport Science told him. So when Jones laid out to make a one-handed grab with his left hand during a week five game against the New York Jets, Sport Science might have been the only group in the world with that information handy.

Jones’ in-studio segment has yet to air because of his own season-ending injury, but producers said he had a productive visit. The professional pass-catcher performed some tests, and then broke the Guinness world record for longest completed water balloon toss. The still-full balloon, now autographed, sits in a case on an office desk. No matter how long the balloon lasts, the data isn’t going anywhere.

And just like SportVU is making a run at collecting data from college players, so is Sport Science. Prior to the 2013 NFL draft, 30 soon-to-be NFL players came to the lab for testing. Sport Science hopes to have 50 players in next year.

“Unlike the NFL Combine, we put them through tests that are a closer representation to their on-the-field ability,” Baldrige said.

And Baldrige is proud to point out that Sport Science gave high grades to Colin Kaepernick, Luke Kuechly and Jason Pierre-Paul, who all blossomed into stars at the NFL level.

Sport Science is building up a database so that next year’s prospects like Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel can be compared to recent draftees like E.J. Manuel and Russell Wilson.

Just like with the NBA data, sample size creates context.

And because it makes for great television, sports fans take in a weekly dose of analytic numbers that reveal athletic potential.