In College Basketball, The Rich Are Just Getting Richer—And Smarter

Hey, SportVU motion-tracking cameras are coming to college basketball. In fact, they're already there, the New York Times explains, in arenas at Duke, Louisville, and Marquette this season. This is good news for any number of nerdy, obsessive reasons, and laughable news because, once the technology really matures, it likely places smaller schools at an even greater institutional disadvantage than exists now.

You know about SportVU. It tracks players and ball movement, sampling 30 times a second, and spits that out as an enormous pile of data that can then be pored over by teams, nerds, and even casual observers at NBA.com. It's very cool and potentially very useful, though its true potential is pretty far off. You also know about humongously imbalanced spending in college sports, certainly including basketball.

Thing is, the SportVU system costs NBA teams upwards of $100,000. Stats Inc. has said that the cost would be less for colleges, but whatever it is, it's not going to give most of the bigger schools much pause. Mostly, you can expect the decision to adopt this to come from the conference level, with the ACC clearly out in front. (You can also expect them to try to get some of their away games or tournaments played in NBA arenas if it's plausible, for a larger sample size.) Some of the schools at the fringes of the tournament, though, spend around or about $1 million total on basketball. For them, this amounts to the bigger schools reclaiming the little foothold that many of them had staked out with the onset of advanced metrics this past decade or so.

That isn't surprising; data in sports analytics is more proprietary than ever, and it's only going to become more so in the near future. But it's still more than a little depressing to read stuff like this:

Stephen Gentry, a Stephen F. Austin assistant, excitedly described the type of detail SportVU could provide. Then he sounded resigned.

"There's already a great divide," Gentry said.

And then there's this:

Television networks, particularly ESPN, may be approached about investing in it, if they are given access to the data.

Which conferences do you think will be first in line for ESPN or FOX network deals, and subsidized data analysis?

There are questions about how useful this will be in college basketball, of course. The season length, for one, is a question. There are only 20 or so games in the season, half that at home, so the amount of data you're really going to get is limited for now. Duke went ahead and installed the system in its practice facility, but that isn't reasonable for most schools, so adopting at the conference level will be crucial. Further, bigger schools also have to deal with one-and-done players, for whom just the one season might not make that much of a difference.

But those same concerns are valid about all of the efficiency stats that have permeated the sport the past few years; SportVU is those, but better (eventually). And even if the data are sketchy, one of the uses for a real pro quant is to parse through that and try to dig out meaning. This is a luxury that Duke can afford, and mid-major X might not be able to, even if they get the cameras. And even the most basic level, you can see being able to visualize for young guys exactly what they're doing right or wrong on the court would be a big help.

In a lot of ways, information has been responsible for the rise of parity in college basketball, with Butler, VCU, and others adopting metrics that aren't quite new, but were novel enough to get an edge. Now access to information is re-opening that gap. The rich and dumb were always at least on par with the poor and smart; when the rich get smart, everyone is fucked.

[New York Times]