Feature Story

Sports Analytics Goes High School: Small-budget Coaches Get Big-league Capabilities

by Kevin Maney

While high school programs have long studied game video, new web-based apps tag, sort, and analyze video for a low-cost, data-driven competitive advantage.

National Basketball Association teams have long wielded big budgets for data analytics that can break down tendencies of rival teams. But this year, a disruptively cheap web-based version of the technology helped the high school boys on the Fort Bend Travis Tigers basketball team storm to the Class 5A Texas state championship.

The technology was pioneered by New York start-up Krossover Intelligence, which launched its basketball service in 2010. It now offers similar services for football and lacrosse, and says there are more than 1,000 schools using the technology. Most are high schools, but in April, tiny Amherst College used the data to help it analyze their opponent in the NCAA Division 3 men’s basketball championship. “It was almost sinister, completely unfair, what they did with that knowledge,” wrote the Boston Globe in a story about Amherst’s victory.

Krossover is a web application that digitally tags and analyzes video footage, giving coaches a host of ways to sort information and video clips. Coaches upload game video to the site, and within 48 hours the company tags the video and builds a database of the game by on-court actions and players. A coach could, for instance, watch all the missed shots of a particular player, or see what an opposing player does most often each time he gets the ball in a certain place on the court.

Another service, Hudl, allows coaches to send video and diagrams to team members over the web. Software company Gamebreaker, lets coaches break down their video and share the edits on a site called HomeField. The trend is for such services to move online and down-market, so almost any school can afford it.

“We were in the stone age before,” says Sharman White, the boys basketball coach at Miller Grove High School in Georgia. “Before, I would cut up DVDs to make highlights, and the time for doing that is very long. And even then, you can’t get breakdowns of all the different things that happen on the court without having to watch the tape a million times.”

White, whose team won five state championships in a row, believes he’s seen improvement that directly relates to the technology.

Many high school teams have long shot and analyzed video of games, but the process of tagging and sorting was essentially entirely manual.  These services save coaches boatloads of time. And because the services are on the web, they’re far more flexible. Coaches can give their players access so the players can do their own analysis on a laptop or mobile phone -- or sort for their own best plays which also enables them to assemble highlight reels for college scouts.

 “I send the kids videos as homework assignments, or I ask them to check the video and write notes,” says Sue Phillips, girls basketball coach at Archbishop Mitty High School in California.

The team splits up at practice, discussing different aspects of their past games while huddled around school-provided iPads. “The kids love it because they don’t have to convene in a classroom and we don’t have to monopolize more of their time,” she adds. “And parents love it – some kids have a parent that wants to get involved, and I say, ‘Watch these videos with your daughter, and talk to her about what she’s doing.’”

This type of technology is an early example of a growing trend: the consumerization of analytics. Over the past decade, analytics -- software that combs through data to identify trends and find ways to optimize operations -- has become vital to the way big enterprises operate. But it’s expensive and usually requires high-powered computer systems.

Now companies are building simpler, cheaper, “good enough” analytics services that are accessible by a wider audience.

Other examples include health apps like Fitbit, which crunches and analyzes some of your fitness patterns, and smart meters that can track and analyze home energy use.

And in the post-Moneyball era, the sports world is increasingly hungry for data and ways to analyze it. Word about online video analysis is spreading through the high school strata.

“More and more people are asking me about it,” says Miller Grove coach White. “I’m very candid that I’m a big fan of it.”


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