Bill James, the original baseball statistical analyst, published his first Baseball Abstract in 1977. VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet, appeared in 1979. Few could have imagined 30 years ago the collision course that sports, data and computation would be on.
But collide they have. It's a list too long to describe in full, from fantasy sports to moneyball sports management to tv-magic yellow lines on a football field. Sports, in the big broad sense, as great as it is now, is poised to get better still; the goldenest of sports' golden ages is almost here.
Better how? Athletes are getting more athletic. Coaches are more innovative. Equipment is lighter, stronger, and safer. Sports television productions are bigger and in higher definition. Online sports journalism has evolved far beyond its print origins.
All of these examples have benefited from data analysis and advanced computation. All of them will continue getting better. And there's a multiplier effect. Advances that lead to better athletes, for example, will foster new coaching innovations and in turn lead to production insights for sports media-makers.
The sustained continuous improvement raises questions in my mind about longer-term sustainability. Even though all signs point to better sports products – great players, great teams, great games, great journalism, great television – the path to the goldenest age of sports could get sidetracked. The NFL and the NBA face uncertain labor negotiations between team owners and their players. Twelve months from now fans could be looking at no professional games in either sport if owners and players can't agree on a new labor contract. Television broadcast rights contracts, which in the past had only increased in monetary value, are either money-losing business propositions for networks, or are increasingly becoming content for ESPN or another cable property.
Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are less of a dirty sports secret among professional athletes now that baseball has established policies that seek to clean the game. Whispers surface about athletes using steroids or human-growth hormone, but advances in sports training methods have raised the level of what an athlete can expect to accomplish without taking the risks associated with PEDs.
Besides economics and cheating, the very rules of the games expose sports to risk that bring into question long-term sustainability. In football, the size and speed of the athletes playing and the violent nature of a game based on collisions has brought into question whether basic safety expectations are being met. In a world where athletes get even bigger and faster, football will need equipment advances and rule changes.
Sports, again the big-picture collective, needs to think about how it can evolve from what it is to something that can still support widespread innovation, but do it sustainably. The digital aspects of sports seem to be on solid ground, but it's the tough decisions requiring human-to-human interaction where things get shaky.
- blog by Brad Stenger, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University