Skip navigation

As the amount of “raw data” available on the Internet continues to grow rapidly, fantasies have been conjured of the potential productive power of “mining” untapped data, of combing through the endless drudges of numbers to discover an unfound pattern or some hidden conclusion. However, while this fantasy of a “data revolution” is usually discussed in the context of a Big Brother style megacorporation feasting on “big data,” the dream of the hidden potential of data analytics has bled into many aspects of contemporary society, reaching an almost fetish-like level of obsession in arenas like professional sports. Sparked by the development of “sabremetrics” in baseball in the 1990s (as detailed in the film Moneyball), professional sports franchises have in the past 5 years dived head first into the world of “advanced stats,” totally reorienting their decision making practices by pledging allegiance to the objective power of numbers. With access to almost limitless varieties of statistics – released even to the casual fan on websites like – the Internet subculture surrounding sports like baseball and, particularly, basketball has become fundamentally governed by a logic of efficiency and data manipulation. Indeed, in basketball, this recent “statistical revolution” – led by forward thinking teams such as the Houston Rockets – has reached a fever pitch; along with the traditional events like the All-star game and the Slam Dunk contest, among the most covered events in the NBA today is the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

However, this fixation on the productive power of complex and abstract statistics has fundamentally altered not only the way in which decisions are made by teams but also the way in which the viewer experiences and reacts to the spectacle of the game itself. Captivated by the same fantasy of ultimate efficiency promised by advanced data analytics as the coaches and managers of their teams, the passionate basketball fan is now more invested in their favorite player’s “Win Shares per 48 Minutes” and “Player Efficiency Rating” than their signature dunk or their intangible leadership qualities. In this respect, the dominance of this logic of the “statistical revolution” has fundamentally altered the very spectacle of basketball itself; the dramatic comeback narratives and clutch playoff performance have, in some sense, been replaced by the cold, hard, truth of numbers. Following this, advanced stats have dramatically changed the way in which fans and the media evaluate certain players – uncovering hidden statistical gems and shaming players that fail to produce the right statistics. This can be evidenced in the media reception to a player’s ability to draw fouls and “get to the line;” while shooting free throws is almost universally regarded as the most boring aspect of basketball, the ultra-high efficiency of the free throw shot has reconstructed the free throw as the pinnacle of the modern NBA offence – and has made stars and fan favorites out of players that can consistently draw fouls, James Harden being a notable example.

In this respect, for the passionate fan watching the NBA, now more excited by a hyper-efficient foul than an inefficient, hoisted midrange jump shot, the NBA has become data enacted, data as spectacle. While the passionate NBA fan used to tune in a few times a week to see their favorite players put on a show, in the age of “big data” the fan now watches data points interact, match ups play out, and efficiency overcome inefficiency.