The San Francisco 49ers are the defending NFC champs. After a narrow loss to Baltimore in the Super Bowl, the franchise isn’t exactly in a rebuilding mode, but the team is reinventing its approach to the NFL draft using technology developed by an international business software company.
Preparing for the draft is complicated business. There are game statistics, workout results and combine evaluations. It is a job filled with hard figures and hunches. In short, scouts collect a lot of information and a lot of paper.
“I played in college and when the scouts came to look at us, they had their binders and they had their stopwatch[s],” said Mike Morini, senior vice president and general manager for SAP’s cloud business in the Americas. “They’d write all their stuff down. And then when they got back to maybe, headquarters, they’d finally find a way to put it in a binder.”
Streamlining The Football Data StreamSAP develops business application software for more than 230,000 clients worldwide. Last month at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, the company unveiled its new NFL scouting application. The 49ers are the first team to use it.
“The vision is these scouts are going to be working on an iPad,” Morini said. ” They enter the information once, and it’s in. And they instantaneously have access to it. And if they’ve got other scouts like them that they compare notes with, they can share the information much easier.”
The system runs on SAP’s “High-Performance Analytic Appliance” or HANA. In layman’s terms, it allows for rapid sorting of mounds of data. Senior Director of Product Management Sami Muneer gave me a demonstration. He says the Niners can input information from scouts and other sources then the program prioritizes it.
“All of that logic is embedded in here, so you don’t care about, ‘OK, which paper do I need to see’ at any given point in time. Because that’s how [scouts] would analyze [data before],” Muneer said. “Right now it’s like, ‘I’m looking at this. I know that’s the latest and greatest and most pertinent.’”
If The GM Doesn’t Understand It, It’s Useless
49ers COO Paraag Marathe says piling up information is easy, but the challenge is making it user-friendly for coaches and general managers.
“And that’s something that’s sort of overlooked. People want to get reams of data and put together like this really robust analysis,” Marathe said. “But you know what? If it’s not communicated [or] it’s not simple and clear, it’s not going to be used.”
If scouting is like poring over a massive menu at a restaurant, draft night is placing an order … and a lot of teams learn the kitchen just ran out of their first choices. This week, the 49ers have ditched the traditional white board for a digital, automated draft board. Muneer says SAP’s software provides real-time assessments of other teams’ needs and San Francisco’s options.
“Does our simulation make sense in the context of that team’s roster, that team’s depth charts, in the context of that team’s salary cap? Will they be able to afford these kind of players, or are they going to make a different trade, are they going to make a different pick? That kind of real-time simulation is the real beauty of this virtual draft board. Otherwise, what you have is those big magnets.”
Analytics extend into the stands, too. The Niners are preparing to open a brand-new, high-tech, $1.2-billion stadium in Santa Clara in 2014. SAP is developing analytics from the information the franchise gathers from fans. Marathe says teams currently take a blanket approach to customer service.
“Nobody does it based on a season-ticket holder’s in-game preference,” he said. “What are they hungry for? Who do they just want to watch a replay of? Who’s their kid’s favorite player that they might want to buy a jersey for their kid. Where are they parked? How do we help them get to their car?”
The NBA: Where Stats Happen
While SAP is working with private NFL data, it’s also helping the NBA make in-depth stats more public. In February, the league launched NBA.com/stats. The website’s features include every box score dating back to 1946. NBA Vice President of Operations and Technology Steve Hellmuth says fans now have access to high-level stats to settle their debates.
“’Coach, you’re not starting the right people at the right time,'” Helmuth said. “Now, they can actually go in find the data, slice and dice it, tweet it, email it, post it on their Facebook, and show why.”
My mission is different from [the NBA’s]. My mission is to win.
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey is the co-chair of the annual MIT sports analytics conference. He loves combing through data and numbers, but he is not excited to see more information about his players out in the open.
“My mission is different from theirs. My mission is to win, so I’d probably prefer they don’t [publish the data],” he said between panel discussions in March. “But for the NBA, I think it’s smart. You get fans engaged. I think crowdsourcing [and] that kind of stuff is very smart for them.”
But Morey admits, the Rockets do quite a bit of high-tech data gathering that won’t turn up in a Google search.
“Well, I don’t want to tell you too much,” Morey said with a laugh. “We definitely are tracking our players constantly – heart rate, speed, acceleration, movement – [in] practice and in the game using overhead cameras. It’s another data stream that helps us make good decisions.”
Morini says SAP hopes to work with data-driven teams, like the Rockets, soon.
“If you think about the NFL, you’ve got really one feeder channel. It’s college. There’s statistics coming out of the NCAA,” Morini said. “But … the NHL, they’re feeding from the junior programs, from college globally becuase it’s a global sport, all of Europe and Eastern Europe. So you’ll see us target the NHL, Major League Baseball, [and the] NBA.”
If the idea catches on, it could be a blow to the three-hole punch. Binders beware.