Is math, technology, and efficiency sucking the joy out of professional sports? And as we hurtle headlong into a world with increasing amounts of technology, automation, and investment in artificial intelligence, will the sports of tomorrow still be as enjoyable?
The groundbreaking "Moneyball" philosophy of Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s in the 1990s which jumpstarted today’s analytic frenzy, now in retrospect seems quaint, as must have Henry Ford’s revolutionary Model T looked old-fashioned and dated only a generation later when America entered the Atomic era.
Today’s baseball lingo and strategies are summed up in terms such as launch angles, spin rates, exit velocity, and a boat load of acronyms not in our lexicon just a few years ago. All of this has made playing baseball more efficient and helps teams maximize their ability to win, but has this efficiency come at the cost of a less exciting product?
Every at bat is increasingly about either hitting a home run or drawing a walk, and for the pitcher trying to get a swing and miss. The analytics tell us that a batter is better off striking out more than what was once acceptable and even hitting for a lesser average, if they can substitute it for higher quality hits (such as a home run) along with a ton of walks which lead to a better on base percentage. And don’t bother to steal a base, as we have learned being caught stealing is a real analytic buzz kill, and the risk isn’t worth the reward.
Consequently, the game of baseball is grinding down to longer at bats where the outcome is increasingly either a walk, home run, or strike out. And if a player does put the ball in play, he is less likely to get a hit, as analytics does a remarkable job positioning the fielder pitch to pitch. Baseball games have become longer with predictive outcomes, all with a lot more standing around. Not necessarily what you want, when your biggest selling point has always been the spontaneity and fluidity of what will happen next.
But don’t feel smug if you’re a football, basketball, hockey, or soccer fan either, although not as far along as baseball, the sports analytic train has already left the station and soon will dominate all professional sports. Analytics aside, thanks to technology, sports fans after a bang-bang play, have trained themselves not to enjoy the moment, but instead, sit on their hands for five minutes while officials either grab headsets or go under curtains, as they wait for some unseen Oz to tell them the outcome of the play. Talk about a yawn. I’ll take imperfect yesteryear when a bad call would at least get the manager flying out of the dugout and into a heated rhubarb with the umpire. Now that was entertainment.
The same technology and analytics that are changing sports are also changing our daily lives. Because of this, the world I live in and the life I lead is more efficient, comfortable, and safer than the world I was born into. And I’m appreciative and glad of that. Whether it is our daily life or a ballgame, the efficiency, comfort and predictability that modern technology and analytics provides to solve our daily strife and mysteries does come with one downside, as once the mystery and tension of what will happen next is gone, life can become boring.
I’m reminded of this as I watch the amazing technology being developed by very smart people at Uber, Google, Tesla, and the like who are making real progress on driverless cars. This technology will one day save thousands of lives, countless dollars in insurance claims, and will give some older Americans who can no longer drive more mobility. All of this is a great thing. But then again, one of the great joys of postwar America is hitting the open road and being the master and commander behind the steering wheels of our cars. That era is coming to a close, as technology metaphorically and literally is about to downgrade us from driver to mere passenger when it comes to driving and perhaps in our own lives as well.
So how will all this shape our games and life in the future? That is anyone’s guess, although if A.I. were further along the development path it would provide the answer, so we wouldn’t even have to imagine or guess anymore. In the meantime, as evidence points to how technology, like smartphones, is changing how our brains function, we can bet both our games and our lives will be vastly different. Let’s just hope in the future they are both still exciting to participate in.
Matthew Kastel is a 25-year veteran of working as an executive in the world of sports, including professional teams, organizations, and some of the largest vendors in the industry. Matt has also written two novels and teaches and lectures at universities on the business of sports. For more information you can visit his website at thirdstrikeproductions.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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