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Disrupt BOFA, or Why the Sports-Tech Alliance Is a Joke

The forced crossbreeding of sports and tech is leading us down some weird and so very stupid rabbit holes.

by Jack Ross
Dec 30 2014, 2:56pm

Cash-strapped collegiate ballers and absurdly wealthy new NBA owners are no different in one respect: both are perpetually looking for an extra inch to exploit in the margins; and increasingly, both are navigating the same 'space' to find it: the world of cutting-edge technology.

On one hand, Xavier's center and second-leading scorer Matt Stainbrook started moonlighting as an Uber-driver to boost his measly scholarship stipend, introducing a trend that could keep the NCAA's stranglehold on their workforce tighter, assuming players make good on Uber's fantastical promises of a potential six-figure salary boon. (The NCAA can only hope.)

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On the other, Steve Ballmer essentially overtook an analytics company to empower Clipper fans at Staples Center. Sixers owners, now in Year 4, treat their team as a long-tail investment, sinking short-term operating costs in hopes of future prosperity. Even the Warriors' brass used a very tech-ish rationale in replacing Mark Jackson with Steve Kerr.

And of most recent notoriety, the Bucks introduced the idea of "facial recognition" into the sports vernacular, with recently hired Dan Hill, a devotee of Paul Ekman's 43 facial-muscle coding-system, in hopes of translating smiles-and-cries into wins-and-losses alchemy, no matter how rich with fool's good such a concept might sound.

Question is, does any of it actually matter? In the arena of sports and business, it very well may be foretelling, with sports-tech's union leading some to believe the world's next Uber could be a Unicorn child from the two. With the Bitcoin Bowl popping up, NBA Christmas being deemed the league's "most tweetable day," and an array of sports-betting and social media fueled examples, it seems only a matter of time until the right entrepreneurs realize exactly how to leverage sports into companies with multi-billion dollar valuations.

But in actual arenas, stadiums, and on-the-field-of-play? More likely, we'll be waiting a while for tangible evidence that new methodology affects games played by flesh-and-blood data points, no matter new facial-wrinkles added to personnel decisions.

In the case of Hill justifying his worth, the majority smells like self-aggrandizing smoke, and precious little fire.

"Nothing against [Dante] Exum, but emotional resiliency, stability and an immediate, assured presence were all key considerations in support of selecting [Jabari] Parker," Hill told the New York Times.

Russell Westbrook's success this season, even, was explained away via his pearly-white metrics: "According to Hill, Westbrook shows a high number of weak smiles or 'satisfaction,' and enough 'true' smiles, which equate to 'joy' and contribute to what has been a highly effective season — averages of 28.6 points and 7.4 assists per game."

The "founders" story behind the newly-minted Bucks secret-weapon rang out as equally preposterous:

Hill said he was inspired to take his work into sports after observing "profound sadness" in the face of Rafael Nadal soon before he lost the 2008 United States Open semifinal match to Andy Murray. The epiphany convinced Hill he could help teams find the "heart of a champion" by predicting and improving performance through facial coding.

Every instance—Parker over Exum, Westbrook, and Nadal—smacks of correlation mistaken for causation; Hill's methods over-explaining simple truth: the best man usually wins. Westbrook's menacing post-dunk scowls mean as much as his smiles; Rafa's "profound sadness" was likely just as evident during any of his 14 grand slam wins; and Parker was simply a safer, better-known commodity than Exum.

At least, credit the Bucks for outside-of-the-box thinking, and recognizing a basic failing underlying the sports-tech, uber-metrics-wave: numbers lie. In the NBA, advanced ratings can tell us Brandan Wright is better than LeBron, Shane Battier is the best player ever, or James Harden is a world-class defender.

Meanwhile, Moneyball has yielded the A's one ALCS appearance in 15 years, Moreyball hasn't yet fueled the Rockets past the playoffs' first round, and the expected return for teams doing things differently looks exceedingly inconsequential.

With a total $3 billion price tag collectively from the last three NBA franchises sold, though, it's no surprise recent owners are leveraging takeaways and best practices from tech, whence they came. Every edge matters, no matter how indefensible.

But what is there to show for any of it? Stainbrook's wallet is a few dollars heavier, Sixers crowds a few thousand lighter, Clipper fans a few stats savvier, and Warriors nation a few sermons lesser.

The rest of us? We'll keep pondering what exactly comprises the "heart of a champion," leaving no rock unturned, nor any smile unnoticed, whether it ever matters or not.

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sports and tech
stop being stupid about sports