The Tyranny of the Factoid

The trend in sports television is towards more factoid and less actual information. What is there to learn from that?
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Speaking Truth To Power.

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Before a quarterfinal match of the women's tournament at the U.S. Open, ESPN's commentators informed the viewing audience of the IBM Datapoint of the Match. It said this: Serena Williams needed to win 46 percent of points that lasted for two or fewer shots in order to win her quarterfinal match against Ana Ivanovic. It is not initially clear what, if anything, this can be said to mean: was winning slightly under half of these points much more or less than was expected from Serena, or from non-Serena players? And how many points did this add up to over the course of Serena’s win? There may be something to this stat, when viewed in context, but this was presented on its own, and as its own context: as a revolutionary factoid, the key to something, maybe everything. It was, for me, mostly a key factor in a sudden wish to turn off the television.

Worse, it put an uncomfortably curmudgeonly thought in my head: Data is ruining sports telecasts.

I'm not a Luddite. I have no problem with data, I enjoy parsing numbers, and more than that I want more information, be it actual newly observed or measured information or novel ways of understanding the same stuff we’ve been getting during sports broadcasts for years. The new and ambitious plans for the America's Cup sound excellent, for instance, and could be a significant advancement in the televising of the sport. In the best case scenario, those new ways of presenting and explaining new information could make an opaque rich guy’s pursuit something that non-sailers can understand and enjoy. That thing they do in NFL broadcasts where the blue line shows how fast, how high, and how far a pass traveled? Love it. VoRP is both fun to say and useful. Even NASCAR broadcasts, which would not necessarily be anyone’s first option for cutting edge innovation, offer RPM gauges and throttle graphics that greatly improve the telecast.

But there's a limit, and a difference between information presented in context and with explanation, and raw, unprocessed data. Data—in numerical or graphical form, and in general—needs to be deployed intelligently. Present this sort of information properly—what something is, why it matters, how it impacts what you’re watching—and the experience of watching sports is deepened. Simply flood the broadcast with Interesting Factoids and Important Numbers, though, and viewers are left thrashing and gasping for air, way over their heads in a sea of clear blue nonsense. With great power (of numbers, of acronyms) comes great responsibility.

This isn’t to say that every broadcast needs to be a Sloan Sports Analytics Conference lecture. It probably had better not be if Troy Aikman or Kevin Millar is involved, and if it takes too long to explain what a given statistic means, it might be a sign that it’s best left onstage at MIT. But most advanced stats aren’t really dizzyingly complicated so much as they’re just new; it takes a minute to explain something like Fielding Independent Pitching statistics, and it changes the way viewers understand the game. The only scary part about it is that FIP is a less-familiar acronym than ERA. Just a little bit of context can do much to change a sponsored factoid from an-excuse-to-say-IBM-on-television to something like information.

This is, sadly, not happening, and sports broadcasts are in growing danger of overwhelming their viewers with noise. Combine the influence of Moneyball—usually as understood and expressed by people who haven’t read it or disagree passionately with an imaginary idea of it—the Sloan Sports Conference, and Big Data, and you get chaos. Tennis, with those IBM Datapoints and everything else, is possibly the worst current offender, but everyone is doing it.

This is not a call for less information in our sports broadcasts; it’s more of a request for better information, fewer factoids and more information. More is not necessarily better. More useless, undigested data is too much; even a little bit is too much. And more of that is worse. Spewing data for data's sake, or for the sake of announcing which corporate entity was kind enough to sponsor that particular factoid’s burp-up, doesn't enhance the sports-viewing experience. Just because you can quantify something and slap an acronym on it doesn't mean you should. It certainly doesn’t mean viewers at home need to know about it.

Soccer, specifically MLS, is making a big play to give its fans more, more, more. I like soccer and MLS is creating an increasingly strong product—both on the field and on television – but this development concerns me. Do it right, and the advent of dynamic and incisive in-game information has the potential to be a massive value-add, in a bunch of different ways—in a sport without commercial breaks, there is always, always, the need to get some more sponsors into the mix and onto the screen. But there is also, here, some terrible potential for over-extension. MLS's efforts are targeted to the "second-screen experience," which is fine, but I hope they keep it there. I don't need Arlo White telling me on NBC that Landon Donovan ran 18.2 mph to catch up to David Beckham's long ball, which traveled 40 yards in 3.2 seconds at an average speed of 25.5 mph; I saw it, I know, and the numbers add nothing to the awesomeness. And I certainly don't want Kyle Martino offering up that FC Dallas needs to complete 80 percent of their passes between five and 10 yards to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy as the VW Fact of the Match.

The rise of analytics across the sporting universe is, on balance, a good thing. At some level, all games are meant to be quantified, broken down, explained; there’s a lot to find, there. But there's also the mysterious, the unexplainable, the plain weird side of sport that's just as important, and which resists this sort of glib quantification. We should be able to sit back and watch what develops without having to duck blunderbuss blasts of meaningless percentages from commentators or seeing confusing, decontextualized stats about inane scenarios displayed as graphics on the bottom third.

On Ashe, in that match with the 46 percent stat, Williams easily defeated Ivanovic, 6-1, 6-3. The match was never close. That much was obvious.

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