Game of Edges: The Analytics Revolution and the Future of Professional Sports
“In Game of Edges, Bruce Schoenfeld has produced a clear and interesting presentation of the revolutions that are still booming through professional sports.”
In the past few years any discussion of professional sports will include multiple references to “analytics.” In some instances, it is used as a term indicating a new sophistication of team management framed as cutting edge and progressive thinking. In other cases, it is used as a term of derision, mocking those who think that some set of numbers or algorithm can improve the management of a sports team, both on or off the field of play.
In the world of analytics, massive caches of data are used to dictate in-game decisions, as well as overall organizational and business management strategies. Conventional wisdom, gut feelings, or the eye test are no longer tools of the field manager, the general manager, or ownership. Running a sports team requires the expertise of college trained business management degree holders. Engineers, mathematicians, and computer experts have superseded the baseball lifers and those owners looking for ego fulfillment rather than profit.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Sports Illustrated. He has appeared as a commentator on sports on radio, television, and podcasts. This is his third book on sports.
In Game of Edges, Schoenfeld examines the massive growth of sports aided and abetted by parallel revolutions in media, data collection, and analysis. The resulting transformation of sports is examined within professional sports across the world. Schoenfeld’s focus is primarily on soccer, American football, baseball, and basketball.
Starting with Billy Beane and Moneyball, Schoenfeld tracks the analytics revolution as it sweeps through baseball. Another key figure in the development of the analytics revolution is John Henry of the Boston Red Sox who guided the Sox to a run of World Series victories by putting together a team of analysts led by Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein. Henry would also play a significant role in applying the analytics methodology to Liverpool in the English Premiership.
In the NBA, the case study is the Golden State Warriors and their emergence from the doldrums to the pinnacle of the NBA. The choice of Steph Curry in the draft, the hiring of Steve Kerr as coach, and other organizational decisions that were in part driven by analytics.
The success of the Tampa Bay Rays, on the field if not with fans, is another of the case studies. This one includes the data-driven decisions of manager Kevin Cash that at times produced failure on the biggest stage.
In addition, Schoenfeld offers an insightful look at the world of sports gambling. He pays particular attention to such phenomena as Draft Kings and the new comfort that professional sports has found in their partnerships with gambling. He points out the symbiotic relationships that exist with the data boom, the wireless phone, and media explosion that began with ESPN and has developed well beyond with the advent of streaming. The emerging revenue streams generated from all these sources seem endless.
Business organization and practices are examined. Emerging from an age when professional sports franchises thought all that was needed was to open the doors and the fans would pour in, the emphasis now is on marketing, customer relations, and community relations. The exploitation of markets and the creation of new streams of revenue are key parts of the business model in professional sports.
For the most part, Game of Edges seems to welcome and marvel at the changes. After all, more is better and more is never enough. At several points along the way, particularly in the later chapters of the book, Schoenfeld reveals a hint of ambiguity about the transformation he has so vividly described. One such case is in his description of the development of analytics departments that are so successful that individual teams such as the New England Patriots have spun off its own analytics business. This new entity, part of the larger Patriots business, now manages the analytics operations as consultants to other NFL teams and sports franchises.
In Game of Edges, Bruce Schoenfeld has produced a clear and interesting presentation of the revolutions that are still booming through professional sports. In addition, it offers an understanding of the many changes that have impacted the favored pastimes of so many fans of teams across the globe. Any fan who thinks they understand the business of modern sports needs to come to grips with Game of Edges as it unveils the entirety of this whole new world of sports.