The World Cup, Data Analysis, and Maximizing Profit

I’m a big fan of analytics.  And sports (although I no longer have time to keep up with them).  So I’ve always been puzzled that with so much money and pride on the line, teams have done so little analyze data to help them win.  Sounds a bit like pricing, right?

There’s no shortage of stats in sports, just as there’s no shortage of KPIs in business.  While these numbers are interesting and sometimes even useful, they often provide little insight into true performance, and may even distort performance in a way that reduces overall effectiveness.  For example, some baseball statisticians think On Base Percentage is more important than batting average, but everyone focuses on batting average.  In business, there is a huge focus on revenue at the expense of profit.

The reason for this mismatch is not that teams hate winning or business don’t want to be profitable– it’s just that it’s easier to measure some things than others.  It’s easy to measure revenue or points scored.  It’s harder to measure profit, because cost is such a tricky subject.  And no one records whether those points came off a double screen or were set up by a teammate’s cut that drew away defenders.  (Still, we have it easy.  A friend in Africa fighting AIDS described how one of the big challenges was even measuring the scope of the crisis so they would know how to allocate resources and whether those resources were effective.)

Now some researchers at Queen Mary University in London have done some graph-theory analysis of World Cup matches, developing a way to visualize the balance of a team’s attack, and the “centrality” of each player.  Check out the graph for Holland v Spain.  I’d love to see them go a step further, and put a goal at the end of the pitch, and weight each edge of the graph by the chance of successful completion.  For example, a number of short passes may have a 90% completion rate, while a long ball might have a 50% chance of success, but may be more likely to lead to a goal.

Similarly, in the corporate world, a lot of effort gets expended on deals that make $0 profit (or even negative profit).  If you know where your profit comes from and know how to price those deals appropriately, you can have a huge return not just on investment, but on effort.

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