Saturday 7 February 2015

OptaPro Analytics Forum.

Organised professional football has taken over a century to evolve to the heights of the Premier League, widely regarded as the most watched and discussed club competition in the world.

Similarly, Super Bowl One featured a marching band as half time entertainment, while SB49 was captivated by Katy Perry and two awkwardly dancing "sharks". Arguably another case of gradual advancement to current, new highs.

By contrast, OptaPro's second incarnation of their Analytics Forum, which took place on February 5th in the Senate House of the University of London, a stone's throw away from the British Museum, appears to have shunned incremental change in favour of one giant step forward.

Good as the initial event was, Thursday's occasion was almost flawlessly executed in bringing together the many diverse groups who have an interest in attempting to make some sense of the sport's data.

Expanding the venue from the basement rooms in 2014 to the light filled opulence of the first floor immediately answered the question, how many analytical bloggers can you fit in a lift? while also providing ample room for discussions to continue in the frequent breaks for refreshment.

The initial stars were the Opta judging panel, who selected a diverse and varied series of presentations, that combined innovation with potential application. And Opta themselves, particularly Simon Farrant and Ryan Bahia, who were responsible for the seamless, day long progression from podium to dinner plate to pub, despite the occasional intervention from errant technology.

The backbone of the day was the presentations, which will hopefully to quickly available on the OptaPro site and from a personal stance the highlight was being involved in producing (although thankfully not presenting) alongside Simon Gleave on the subject of ageing in players and age profiling teams.

Each presentation had merit, but two others demand a mention.

The day kicked off with Will Gurpinar-Morgan's polished delivery of the use and application of statistical analysis to define and categorise player types. Will ensured that we weren't witness to a cagey opening half hour and his content and delivery set the bar high for those who followed.

The highlight of the later sessions was Dan Altman's brilliantly constructed piece on going beyond shot locations to quantify scoring opportunities. Dan not only eclipsed my 4-30 am start by flying from and back to New York in a day, he also graciously signed my copy of his book and produced a genuine "wow!" moment when incorporating tracking data into his piece.

He also set the record for the quickest "goal" recorded by Opta during a presentation. I won't the spoil the joke, you will have to watch the video.

The biggest boon particularly for bloggers, is the chance to meet industry insiders and try to gauge how much, if any analysis of data is beginning to seep into the mainstream.

The potential to use numbers within the clubs themselves has been evident for sometime, but it was exciting to chat to guys from both the Premier League media and the print and online media and find them enthusiastic and keen to incorporate analytics into their own output.

The accusation is that analytics sucks the fun out of sport by reducing it to numbers, whereas the truth is that analysis actually helps to explain the inherent uncertainty that always exists in sports, especially one as low scoring as football and so, often raises the expectation for shock, surprises and excitement.

Gut reaction or intuition is often confounded by the data. So data driven conclusion, combined with a narrative can make ideal partners to inform and entertain in equal measure, rather than the hastily constructed sound bites that often dominate much of the coverage, but change with the whims of a single match.

That the appetite for an alternative approach appears to be growing, if slowly, is an encouraging sign.

Finally, Opta are to be congratulated for being prepared to risk staging an event on the basis of an abstract and largely unseen content. However, the size, variety of delegates and especially the distance many were prepared to travel was testament to the success of Thursday's event.

John Coulson and his team would have been hard pushed to improve on Thursday's experience....Maybe a firework display and laser light show from the BT Tower as the pub finally emptied.

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