Alums Bring Big Data to the NBA

by Joe McGonegal on January 3, 2014

in Management

Imagine a world where cameras track your every move and your environment subtly changes based on every small decision you make.

In a microcosmic way, that happens each time you attend an NBA game.

Before tipoff, you may download the team app to your phone. You like or share updates to win prizes, order food from your seats, sign up for texts and receive e-deals as you approach the fan store. At halftime, you upload a photo of yourself for the Jumbotron, or wait for one of dozens of cameras in the arena to do so for you.

Vivek Ranadivé '79, SM '80, left, with Shaquille O'Neal at a Sacramento Kings press conference. O'Neal is a part owner of the team.

Vivek Ranadivé ’79, SM ’80, left, with Shaquille O’Neal at a Sacramento Kings press conference. O’Neal is a part owner of the team. Photo: AP.

Down on the floor, coaches make real-time decisions based on real-time stats while players consider whom to guard or foul at critical points with visions of spreadsheets in their heads.

And from skyboxes far above or courtside seats below, owners like Vivek Ranadivé ’79, SM ’80 consider any metrics that can promote the team’s brand around the world.

Ranadivé, who acquired a controlling share in the Sacramento Kings in May 2013, has helped brands optimize real-time data since founding Teknekron Software Systems in the 1980s. Later, as founder of TIBCO, he developed a platform that enables thousands of customers to do so. TIBCO now earns over $1 billion in revenue each year.

In 2009, Ranadivé began looking for a new challenge, the same year he began coaching his daughter’s youth basketball team.

“The first day, I was terrified, I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled in an interview in January, “but after that what I saw was a big data problem. I created a math equation for the game and I just implemented the equation. I ended up winning every single game and taking my team to the national championship.”

Ranadivé’s story became a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, published in October 2013.

Now Ranadivé wants to apply a Moneyball-like equation to the Sacramento Kings and lead it to its first franchise championship since 1951. To do so, he’s looking at data both on and off the court.

“When I look at the business of basketball, it’s more than basketball,” he told Wired this month. “It’s really a social network. You can use technology to capture that network, expand it, engage it, and then, obviously, to monetize it.”

On the court, the NBA started using SportVu pattern-recognition technology this season. Cameras now track and record all player movements up and down the court.

“It’s been out there for 3-4 years,” says Daryl Morey MBA ’00, general manager of the Houston Rockets and founder of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, “but it is league-wide for the first time this year. This data is the future of NBA analytics.”

Yu-Han Chang PhD ’05 has created software to help teams process SportVu’s data. His code analyzes the terabytes upon terabytes of data produced in each NBA game. Four NBA teams, to date, have sought the services of Chang’s company, Second Spectrum.

“We realized there was a clear need in the marketplace for someone to turn these numbers into something insightful and understandable. We wanted to create a product to address that,” Chang says.

“It’s an exciting area to be in at this moment in time,” he adds, “where we can combine cutting edge sports analytics together with cutting edge computer science.”

Update, 1/17/14: Ranadive’s Kings will become the first NBA team to accept Bitcoin virtual currency. ”When I sold the NBA on keeping the team in Sacramento, my pitch included using the sports franchise as a social network to push the technology envelope,” Ranadive told ESPN.com. “This is an example of that.”

 

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