Charles Barkley’s Analytics Air Ball

Charles Barkley’s Analytics Air Ball

If you missed Charles Barkley’s latest thoughtful assessment of the use of analytics in basketball, here it is: “I’ve always believed analytics was crap.” After railing against basketball analytics and the “idiots” who use them, he went on to claim that the use of analytics in baseball is also fruitless: “They put these little lightweight teams together and they never win.” Given that Barkley’s a basketball guy, I’ll forgive him for forgetting that legendary baseball analytics pioneer Bill James played a key role in building three World Series-winning teams since joining the Boston Red Sox organization in 2003.

His comments came as no surprise — Barkley has been an outspoken critic of advanced analytics in basketball for years — but he’s always been arguing with straw men. He clearly perceives the pro-analytics crowd as relying exclusively on data, poring over spreadsheets without watching a minute of live game action. If that were truly the way an analytically-inclined basketball executive like Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey operated, he would deserve to be ridiculed. But Morey certainly doesn’t operate that way, and that gets me to the broader point that Barkley misses.

Whether you’re running an online retail business or a sports front office, analytics are capable of helping you identify issues and discover new opportunities for success that you may have otherwise missed. But analytics won’t help you without the context and purpose that old-school observation also brings to the discussion. When we combine data and educated judgment we are able to bring optimal value to our operation. It shouldn’t be a debate between analytics and observation — rather it should be a discussion of analytics PLUS observation.

From the digital analytics perspective, this is especially true when it comes to identifying underperforming areas of your web properties. For example, perhaps you notice one particular step in your conversion funnel has a much higher exit rate than the other steps. That’s really great information, but it doesn’t tell you anything about why the exit rate is so high. Savvy marketers will use this information to take a deeper look at the problem step from the user’s perspective, and develop a hypothesis as to what is causing customers to abandon the process. At that point, a test can be launched that will seek to validate or disprove the hypothesis. (Shameless plug: UMarketing can help you find trouble spots like these in your digital experience and develop a test plan to address them.)

Sir Charles is entitled to his opinions regarding analytics in sports, but I think he’s missing the mark. While analytics alone probably won’t make your business successful or win a championship, the insights it provides into what drives performance is certainly a good thing.

As UMarketing’s resident digital analytics expert, Steve is focused on measuring and optimizing clients’ digital marketing programs. He’s also passionate about sports analytics, building his record collection, and vacationing in the Florida Keys.