Magazine article Newsweek

Can Baseball Get More Interesting to Watch with Big Data? MLB Wants to Own the Digital Age the Way the NFL Owned the TV Era

Magazine article Newsweek

Can Baseball Get More Interesting to Watch with Big Data? MLB Wants to Own the Digital Age the Way the NFL Owned the TV Era

Article excerpt

Byline: Kevin Maney

Seventy-five years ago, on August 26, 1939, an experimental New York TV station for the first time broadcast a professional baseball game. The Brooklyn Dodgers, playing at Ebbets Field, split a double-header with the Cincinnati Reds. In the stands, 33,000 people cheered. A paltry 3,000 early-TV geeks watched at home, peering into screens the width of a toaster.

That 1939 broadcast barely hinted at how the technology of television would fundamentally change the relationship between sports and society. But now that kind of historic shift is happening again, this time with the explosion of data technology in sports. In coming years, data will rejigger the power and popularity of different sports.

Maybe data will save baseball. The top task for Major League Baseball's incoming commissioner, Rob Manfred, is to try to make a lullaby-paced sport that takes three hours per game relevant to the Snapchat generation. This season the league began installing a phalanx of gadgets and systems that will collect and analyze data about every sliver of action in every game, clearly betting that data will add a Twilight Zone-like dimension to baseball that no one can yet see. Claudio Silva, the scientist MLB hired to help make sense of the data, is authoring an academic paper titled "Baseball 4D."

Other pro sports leagues have suddenly gone data crazy. The National Football League just announced plans to put radio tracking sensors in every player's shoulder pads. (Maybe the NFL borrowed the technology from crash test dummies wired to measure how hard they hit the windshield.) Last season the National Basketball Association installed technology that can track millions of data points in each game--every player's movement and everywhere the ball goes.

Sports coaches, executives and analysts agree that these systems will provide new insights for fans and management. But no one can yet predict the macro trend that will ride on the emergence of a new sports-delivery technology. Surely, though, there will be one. There always is.

Mass-market newspapers emerged toward the end of the 19th century as immigrants ballooned the U.S. population and engineers invented high-speed printing presses. The first sportswriters wrote mostly about boxing, baseball and college football. Newspapers made sports into more than isolated events experienced only by those who were there. Fans could read about a game after the fact. By expanding the fan base, journalism made it possible for sports to sustain professional leagues.

In the 1920s, radio broadcasts allowed people to hear a game in real time. The excitement of a game could be felt as it was happening, in every living room. Radio, Babe Ruth's New York Yankees and the blistering economy of the Roaring '20s turned baseball into America's pastime--the first widely popular professional sport.

After World War II, televisions poured into U.S. households. In 1950, 9 percent of U.S. homes had a TV. Only 12 years later, it was 90 percent. Just about everyone could now see a game live--a phenomenal change in the relationship between fans and sports. In 1950, the NFL was a pipsqueak league. It didn't play well in print or on radio. But it killed on TV. Visual technology created a new professional sports powerhouse, and the NFL is now the dominant sport of the TV era. …

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