From 'Moneyball' to Money Bombs: What Sports Analytics Can Teach Political Nerds

Winning a campaign is just like winning a game: Data is essential, but it's not enough.

Jonah Hill in the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, left, and Jim Messina in the 2012 version of Obama for America (Columbia Pictures/Associated Press)

A swarm of political strategists will descend on Austin, Texas, this week for South by Southwest's Interactive Festival. It's one of the premier tech conferences of the year -- the place where Twitter made its big splash in 2007. If the political class is going to embrace innovation, SXSW is a good place to start.

As many of my peers prepare for the trip to Austin, I have a story to share from Boston, where I attended the seventh annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last weekend. I heard about the event from a Sports Illustrated story about the Houston Rockets, a team whose data-driven general manager, Daryl Morey, earned his MBA at Sloan.

What, if anything, could a sports analytics conference teach a political junkie?

Since President Obama's reelection, we've heard countless stories about the startup nature of his campaign, with its focus on digital, technology, and analytics to drive decisions about messaging and marketing.

Data played a major role. There's perhaps no better example than the constant testing of email subject lines. The performance of the Obama email with the subject line "I will be outspent" earned the campaign an estimated $2.6 million. Had the campaign gone with the lowest-performing subject line, it would have raised $2.2 million less, according to "Inside the Cave," a detailed report from Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini and the team at Engage.

Obama's embrace of analytics has caused a reckoning, particular for conservatives. It's not that other campaigns ignored data, but Chicago clearly made it a priority in a different way.

Politics didn't come up at the conference, except for a single question to Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight election oracle who got his start doing statistical analysis on baseball players. Silver suggested there wasn't much comparison between the two worlds.

But even if there's no direct correlation, there was an underlying message I heard consistently throughout the conference that applies to both: Data is an incredibly valuable resource for organizations, but you must be able to communicate its value to stakeholders making decisions -- whether that's in the pursuit of athletes or voters.

Data is an incredibly valuable resource, but you must be able to communicate its value to stakeholders making decisions

Despite all we hear about sports statistics like WAR and QBR -- to name two of the less obscure figures -- there's still resistance to analytics in many sports franchises. Several speakers explored ways to overcome this challenge, from convincing owners of the importance of analytics to hiring more data scientists.

But that wasn't a unanimous view. Paraag Marathe, chief operating officer of the San Francisco 49ers, advised students to take classes in negotiations and organizational behavior rather than devoting more time to analytics courses. Figure out how to solve a problem, he said. That's what Marathe has tried to do for the team that came within five yards of winning this year's Super Bowl. Moneyball wasn't making the case for on-base percentage in baseball, noted Aaron Schatz, founder of the data-rich site Football Outsiders. The point of Michael Lewis's bestselling book was to find market efficiencies -- to get an advantage over the other team.

Presented by

Rob Bluey leads the digital-media team at the Heritage Foundation. 

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In