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.

Sound familiar? It's exactly what Obama was doing in his reelection campaign.

The campaign left nothing to chance. Each night in the final stretch of the race, Obama's analytics team ran 66,000 simulations through its computers to have a fresh perspective on the battleground states. That real-time data then drove decisions on how to spend money and make it count.

"We were going to demand data on everything, we were going to measure everything," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, said last fall. "We were going to put an analytics team inside of us to study us the entire time to make sure we were being smart about things."

In sports, analytics means not just performance on the field but also the marketing required to fill stadiums by retaining season-ticket holders and attracting new fans. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who own the professional sports record of 20 straight losing seasons, were featured for their use of data to identify fans in jeopardy of not renewing their ticket plans. Reaching new fans was just as important: The Pirates collected 1,000 unique names each game just by having fans spin a wheel to win a prize in exchange for an email address.

ESPN explained how real-time analytics allow it to customize what content readers see on its website and mobile app. Last month 2.2 million users of ESPN's mobile app received alerts. Data creates a personalized approach for each user. It's also reshaping how reporters at ESPN tell stories. Reporter Mike Sando, who covers the NFL, relies on the number crunchers to share statistics from games that he weaves into his recaps.

And Gary Vaynerchuk, social-media star and wine connoisseur, challenged teams to do more than push content all the time. Listen to your audience, said Vaynerchuk, who amassed nearly 1 million followers on Twitter by answering questions and dispensing advice about wine. Figure out what will generate a consumer's emotional response, Vaynerchuk told a captivated crowd.

No political candidate in recent memory did a better job than Obama of using emotion to persuade voters -- and he did so while relying on team of self-described nerds in his Chicago headquarters. Whether optimizing emails, building polling models, developing a communications strategy, or creating a social-media army, analytics made the campaign better.

There's nothing stopping any campaign or organization from embracing analytics. Sports teams that fail to do so risk losing; the same lesson applies in politics. As conservatives seek a comparative advantage, this is one approach worthy of closer examination.