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The Super (Bowl) Success of Analytics

The role of analytics in sports isn’t a particularly new story. Back in 2003, Michael Lewis – in his book Moneyball – chronicled how the use of analytics helped baseball’s Oakland Athletics win a World Series.  The story became so popular that it was made into an Academy Award nominated film in 2011.  While the application of analytics in football has been less publicized, one of the biggest success stories of analytics in professional football will be on display this weekend at the Super Bowl: The New England Patriots.

Before delving into analytics, two quick caveats. First, before any New York Giants fans (or Patriots haters) send any nasty emails, this post isn’t an endorsement of any particular football team, but rather an attempt to examine the benefits of analytics through the lens of sports.  Second… well, go Pats!

Setting the Stage for Super Bowl Analytics

In the 1990s, the National Football League introduced two significant changes to the league: free agency and the salary cap. Free agency allowed players, once their contracts with one team had expired, to sign with another team.  The salary cap essentially limited the amount of money a team could spend on its players. The intention, and net effect, was to create parity among all the teams in the league.  In other words, in a hyper-competitive industry, all participants had relatively equal access to talent and resources.

Yet within this environment of parity, the New England Patriots have appeared in (six, counting this weekend’s game) and won (three) more Super Bowls than any other franchise over the same period. Many have attributed this success, all other things being equal, to the use of analytics by the Patriots. Here are a few of the ways head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots have been able to use analytics for competitive advantage.

Understanding the Value of Resources through Analytics

In 2000, the Patriots drafted a relatively unknown quarterback named Tom Brady in the sixth round, the 199th player selected overall. The Patriots current roster features 18 players who weren’t drafted by the NFL when they left college. In case you don’t follow football, Tom Brady has gone on to become one of the greatest players of all time (according to NFL Network), and those 18 undrafted players are now playing for football’s grand prize.  While all teams have access to a wealth of data on these players, the Patriots have the ability to look at that data in a unique way, and fit it into their overall system. In other words, they understand the processes that drive success for their organization and have been able to quantify and evaluate the available resources that will most positively impact those processes.

Applying Analytics to Structured Processes

The rules for American football are fairly well established: there are a fixed number of players on each side (11), and a finite number of ways for one to advance the ball (pass, run or kick), yet teams are constantly finding novel ways to combine how those eleven players advance the ball on each play. The Patriots have been known to take the application of analytics in play calling to new heights, allowing them to select plays based on sound information given a myriad of factors in a given situation rather than relying on “conventional wisdom.” Of course, this use of analytics doesn’t always work out, but given that the Patriots have the highest winning percentage in the NFL for the past decade, this application of analytics has seemed to work for them.

Creating Long Term Value through Analytics

The Patriots are one of the most valuable franchises in the NFL according to Forbes. And while the team ranks third for overall value behind the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins, it’s seen a higher increase in value (245%) over the past decade than either.  Winning certainly helps, but many attribute the Patriots’ increase in value to the emphasis the team places on fan satisfaction analysis. The Patriots organization uses analytics to determine and improve the “total fan experience.” They even go so far as hiring 20-25 people for each home game to make quantitative measurements of stadium food, parking, personnel and bathroom cleanliness.  Many people credit the Patriots for their “attention to detail.” I think what sets them apart, however, is their analytics of the details.

What Does it All Mean?

Many organizations, in any industry, wish they were as successful as the New England Patriots.  Are analytics the only factor that has lead to their success? Of course not. But any organization looking to gain competitive advantage through analytics can benefit from the Patriots example. Companies can use analytics to better understand their competitive landscape and evaluate available resources; they can apply analytics to defined processes for improved performance; and they certainly can analyze customer information for increased loyalty. Will the Patriots winning the Super Bowl help to validate the value of analytics? No… but it sure would be nice.

By Adrian Alleyne, Patriots Fan and Director of Market Research

© 2012, DecisionPath Consulting

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