Proprietary Stat Tracking: Bad for Fans, Teams, and Soccer

Regular readers of HTIOT probably read Tweed's post earlier that Prozone has announced the Chicago Fire as their newest client. When I first read the news I was a bit upset, but the more I thought about it, the more enraged about the situation I became. Statistics are important to me, and I feel that they should be important to MLS as well. As I've stated before, statistics seem to garner a lot of attention in America. The complete lack of statistics that MLS provides feels like a gross oversight to me and I think they are missing a potentially large sector of fans. The most upsetting fact is that many of the statistics that fans would be interested in seeing already exist. You're just not allowed to see them.

For more rage, meet me after the jump.

The deal that was inked by the Fire, and by many other teams for that matter, sets us down a rather unfortunate path. You see, by trade I'm a software developer and in that respect I advocate and use a lot of Open Source Software (OSS). Now before you lose interest, I'd like to point out that right now you're using software built on the back of such OSS. Much of the web is built via open source ideals, and provided free for others to use and modify. It's collaboration on a global scale that gave way to the wonderful world we call the Internet today (okay, so some of it is wonderful at least). As a software developer I constantly benefit from the work of others, give back when I can, and get to develop more reliable products for customers. How does this relate to statistics and soccer?  It's all in the 'sabermetrics'.

Sabermetrics was developed through grass roots and homegrown efforts for the sport of baseball.  Major League Baseball has been great about collecting statistics throughout the years. This allowed any weekend mathematician to gather up stats, develop algorithms, and produce results. Since statistics were basically free and nobody had really bought into the idea of using numbers in the ways sabermetrics was doing, there was some realm of collaboration. The most important part though is that anyone that wanted to could take those statistics and try to develop algorithms to make more sense of the data. You could still build a business around sabermetrics if you wanted to, but your only advantage over competitors would be your own team's intelligence and skill. It allowed people to focus on the heart of the matter, the math, instead of the grunt word, the collecting of stats. 

Thanks to MLS not tracking statistics at a level that I'd like to see, we have companies like Prozone that crop up. They track statistics for teams, do post-match analysis, and other forms of number crunching for teams, but for a price. This is incredibly disappointing in my eyes. Don't get angry at Prozone though, because MLS created a situation that allowed a company like Prozone to profit. As someone who's trying to collect the stats myself, I can't say I blame Prozone for not sharing. That still doesn't change the fact that this doesn't benefit anyone, except for Prozone. They get to make money off of the array of teams that need their services, so they're making out alright. What about everyone else though?

Let's start with the fans. More than likely, most fans just care about the very basic statistics that MLS currently provides. They want to know who's scoring goals, who's setting up the goals, and finally who is collecting cards. Then you have your more rabid fans that need more, or people that just think it's sad defenders get such a raw end of the deal in the statistics category. What I think is really unfortunate is that statistics are a great way to draw in more fans from other sports. Like it or not, guys in America seem to love spouting off statistics when they start talking sports. One thing I've noticed in talking to casual fans is that they seem to have a difficult time discussing a match after it's over. Soccer's a complex game, and it's hard to digest. Numbers make that a lot easier. Prozone works too hard for their numbers, they won't be sharing them with fans anytime soon.

What about teams though? How doess it hurt them? One thing software companies commonly do is leverage data as a way to lock clients in to their product. If you look around yourself, you'll see it happens to you as well. Getting your email out of Gmail or your data out of Facebook isn't exactly simple. It's doable, but it's not often straight forward, and at some point in time getting your data out becomes virtually impossible. This is a risk you run with any subscription based service though. At the end of the contract, if the Fire don't renew, they could be left with nothing to show for it. I will note that I do not know how Prozone conducts business, so this is purely speculation on my part. My speculation is based purely off how many companies online tend to do business. What I will say is that if they didn't have to invest in the collection and gathering of statistics, they could build a better product for the Fire and other teams. 

Now the overall picture, soccer as a whole, and how it's impacted by companies such as Prozone. Let's be clear, they're not the first company to perform a service such as this. Companies like Prozone exist throughout the world operating on the same business model. The problem is that there isn't an open and collaborative effort. That means we have companies repeating themselves and generally wasting time. If everyone has to gather statistics for themselves, then that's time that's not being spent further developing algorithms to make more sense of the game from a numbers perspective. Worse yet, we can't have a unified set of statistics to track and thus we can't have consistency from company to company. The world of statistics in soccer can not progress if soccer's governing bodies do not start collecting their own statistics like our American sports leagues do currently.

This all leads to holding the game back, giving teams a lesser product, and detracts from fan enjoyment. I know on the surface you may not care about statistics. Maybe you think the game can't be tracked in numbers. Maybe you think it detracts from the "purity" and "beauty" of the game. Just remember that the same was said about baseball in the past. Who knows, decent statistical tracking could have prevent a signing of Nery Castillo. In my eyes, everyone prospers from governing bodies tracking statistics. Prozone can focus more on their core product, and flesh it out further. Teams will prosper from Prozone's uptick in productivity, won't be as locked in data wise, and they can fact check what they're told. Fans get to go all crazy over statistics. What about MLS though, what good does it do them?

MLS probably has the least to gain from in depth statistical tracking. Keep in mind, I'm not asking for analysis and such from them, just simple, raw data. Of course they'd get the expressed gratitude of the fans, which is definitely something. I think what might be more interesting is that it'd make them a trend setter in the world of soccer. For my money, I think you take that chance.

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