In February, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com released The Great Analytics Rankings, evaluating all MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams on their use of analytics. ESPN placed each team into one of five tiers based on their data analytics adoption: All-In, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics, and Nonbelievers.*
Interestingly, each of the Philadelphia sports teams evaluated ended up in a different tier, despite being at similar levels on the field – at the time of the story, all four teams had failed to make the playoffs in their most recent seasons.
In an attempt to dive deeper into the rankings, Turnkey examined each fan base’s level of optimism about the team’s future, utilizing both fan polling and the wildly unscientific approach of reviewing each team’s fans’ message boards**. In doing so, we realized something interesting: the order in which the Great Analytics Rankings placed Philly’s “Big Four” teams lined up with avid fans’ levels of optimism about each team’s future.
Great Analytics Rankings tier: All-In (#1 Overall)
Fan Optimism: Multiple championships are inevitable
The Sixers have not won more than 20 games in a season since Sam Hinkie took over as GM in 2013. How do fans feel about the future of a team that owns the worst overall record in the league since his arrival? In fact, quite a few feel great – bordering on giddy.
In lieu of fielding a competitive team, Hinkie has jettisoned serviceable NBA players in exchange for opportunities (draft picks, cap space) to acquire talent, particularly superstar talent. Conventional wisdom says that you need a superstar or two to contend for the NBA championship (and, conversely, that you’re almost guaranteed not to win a championship without a few superstars), and all of the new GM’s actions have been geared toward improving the Sixers odds of getting that superstar to build the team around.
While it isn’t hard to find detractors of the process in the general Philly population, many of the team’s more ardent fans have absolutely bought into Hinkie’s notion that straight-line, incremental growth is not a viable path to contention, and are thrilled that their team is going about it a different way.
Great Analytics Rankings tier: Believers
Fan Optimism: (Don’t) Break a leg!
This offseason, the Eagles made some dramatic changes to the team’s roster, driven by the organizational philosophy changes implemented by Chip Kelly.
Not many 10-6 teams would spend the off-season switching out their top quarterback, running back, wide receiver and 40% of a dominant offensive line. However, spirits are high among Eagles fans, mainly because of the team’s newly acquired players – the transplants include a former number one overall pick, last season’s rushing champion and a former Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Philadelphia fan base recognizes the risks of too much changeover, but respect the highly talented class of player Chip and company have brought to the team.
Several of the players the Eagles acquired during the off-season could be considered health risks due to their injury histories, which begs the question: why would a team be more willing to take on such risks? The answer may lie in the fact that the Eagles are one of the league’s strongest proponents of sports science, which undoubtedly contributed to the Eagles being one of the least injured teams in the NFL during Kelly’s tenure (and, fans hope, will help keep the newest Eagles on the field this season). Fans are nervous, make no mistake… but overall, the overhaul seems to have fans, like Kelly, going all-in.
Great Analytics Rankings tier: One Foot In
Fan Optimism: One skate on the ice
Not long after Ron Hextall was promoted to GM in May 2014, he displayed a positive yet measured attitude towards analytics. Said Hextall, “I’m very interested in
On another occasion, he expressed similar sentiments: “You still need eyes on hockey players. I don’t think that will ever change, but the analytics? I wouldn’t say it’s a huge part, but it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Flyers’ fans feelings about Hextall’s tenure as GM could also be described as positive yet measured. Inheriting a challenging salary cap situation and a depleted farm system, Hextall has made it clear that turning around the team’s future will not happen overnight.
It will be several years before Hextall’s first two drafts can be accurately graded, but fans are becoming excited. Partially driven by Hextall’s ability to find value talent in later rounds of the draft, the popular opinion surrounding the team’s future is getting brighter.
Great Analytics Rankings tier: Nonbelievers
Fan Optimism: From epic fail to Andy McPhail
The Phillies are an interesting case. Phillies fans are in considerably better spirits today than they were at the beginning of the year when ESPN ranked them 122nd out of 122 teams with regard to analytics usage. On top of that, Keith Law had the Phillies farm system ranked 25th in MLB.
At the time, the front office’s outdated approach and underuse of analytics did little to inspire hope in a more favorable future .
Guarded optimism emerged with the June announcement that Andy McPhail will be taking over as President at season’s end. McPhail has led turnarounds with the Twins, Cubs and, most recently, the Orioles (currently one game out of a Wild Card spot). McPhail is well-versed in the use of sabermetrics and advanced player analysis, which encourages fans who believe the shift to more in-depth analytics is the right, long overdue move.
McPhail’s influence is already being felt in Philly, as all but two members of the Phillies 2008 World Series have been traded for an impressive package of young talent. This will definitely be reflected in the next farm system rankings. Will it bring this year’s crop of disappointed fans still smarting from the loss of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins back to Citizens Bank Park? That’s another question entirely.
Ok, But… What Does It All Mean?
Can an all-in approach to analytics not only show positive effects on the field, but also improve fan outlooks in the short term? Our opinion: yes. Though some skepticism will likely emerge due to unfamiliarity with new analytical techniques (and the people charged with implementing them), most fans adopt a more positive outlook when their favorite team embarks on a more analytical path. In fact, one might say that adoption of advanced analytics is as much of a public relations move as it is an on-field competitive strategy.
Thanks to Ezekiel Berkowitz for his contributions to this article.
What are your thoughts on analytics’ effect on fan attitudes? Let us know on Twitter!
* The exact metrics to fit into a given category were not published with the ESPN rankings, but we know they were largely based on advanced metric utilization, outlook and recent team performance.
** While reviewing message board content introduces a multitude of biases, we like that message board posters are often deeply informed about their team’s historical and current team-building initiatives.