The NBA Hackathon: What Comes Next

On a bright, sunny morning at Skylight Modern in New York City late last month, 200 students from 52 universities gathered for the 2nd Annual NBA Hackathon. The goal of the event was to connect emerging talent with league leadership, provide a place where creators can dream up the next innovation in game analytics, and encourage networking in a field where few job openings exist and connections are everything.

NBA Hackathon, 9/23/17 // Photo Credit: Melissa Sulewski

The NBA Hackathon was conceived by Jason Rosenfeld, Director of Basketball Analytics at the NBA and his team to recognize young analytics students starting in 2016 after they realized they were constantly tossing around questions like, “How do we create more predictable and engaged viewership that lasts throughout the season for every franchise, not just the teams with the most hyped roster?,” and “What do more long range shots mean for the future of the game?” The decided to pose these types of real world challenges to universities.

The idea of crowdsourcing ideas has exploded in popularity in recent years, and the idea that putting great thinkers together under the pressure of time constraints for big prizes provides tangible results has been long proven at some of the greatest technology companies in the world who regularly host hackathons or similar creative sessions to spark internal innovation.

Though it would seem that data impacts every part of the sports business, the league is still in very early stages of leveraging available data to the fullest extent. Kiki Vandeweghe, EVP Basketball Operations, noted, “Every time we make a change or decision on the basketball side, it’s always driven by data. We do a lot of research into things and we’re always trying to make our league better. We look to the data to tell us what to do with that.” League execs are constantly seeking new ways to understand things like ticket sales, the NBA’s burgeoning multiscreen video/OTT business (League Pass,) and fan engagement on every level. Doris Daif, the head of the NBA’s relatively new Customer Data Strategy group said, “My team has been hacking away the last several months to really try to unlock the business side of data. We’re all about harnessing the power of data to give fans a lifelong love of the game. Simply put, when we think about that data, we really want our fans to watch more, engage more, buy more, and attend more.”

NBA Hackathon, 9/23/17 // Photo Credit: Melissa Sulewski

This year, the competitive application process brought 900 applicants into the league’s doors, which Rosenfeld’s team whittled down to 200, double from last year. After the inaugural hackathon proved to be a massive success, the event expanded into an overnight timeframe more akin to traditional hackathons. This year, not only did the competition allow for a basketball analytics track, it also contained a new challenge: business analytics. The former would tackle in-game challenges and those centered around better understanding player fatigue, drafting, and predictive analytics for team dynamics while the latter was entirely front-office related and fan/ticket sales focused. This year the basketball track judging panel was comprised of league and media heavyweights yet again: Bethany Donaphin, Assoc. VP Basketball Operations at the NBA, Kenny Atkinson, Head Coach of the Brooklyn Nets, Ashok Balakrishnan, Sr. VP Product & Technology – Sportradar, Nate Silver, EIC FiveThirtyEight, Zach Lowe of ESPN, and Mike Zarren, Assistant GM & Team Counsel for the Boston Celtics. Meanwhile, the business track judging was lead by number of business & tech titans: Kaiser Fung, Founder of Principal Analytics Prep, Sam Yen, CDO SAP, Dewayne Hankins, CMO Portland Trail Blazers, Tamar Shapiro, Head of Analytics & Data Science, Instagram, Pablo Torre of ESPN, & Dawane Young, Division VP Platforms & Applications, Verizon. First place prizes included an all expense paid trip to the NBA All-Star game in Los Angeles as well as lunch with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

On the 2nd and last day of the competition, final presentations were made up of unique data-inspired solutions presented on topics such as long range 2-point shots, the entertainment value of games from a marketing perspective, and tailored offers for both new and season ticket holding customers. Ultimately, first place winners included Data Bucket on the business track, with tools to predict the entertainment value of NBA games in a real time interactive tool, and Stanford Sports Analytics on the basketball track with their work exploring the Evolution of NBA Shot Selection.

NBA Hackathon, 9/24/17 // Photo Credits: Melissa Sulewski

With preseason under way already, it remains to be seen how data insights uncovered at the hackathon and the inspiration they provide for data teams on both the league and franchise level impact the NBA’s most valuable product: the actual hardwood floor game. The game is going digital and expanding globally, with games this year being held in Shanghai, Mexico City, and Barcelona. With global expansion comes pressure for global dominance; data will be a crucial part of understanding local markets and tailoring the NBA to meet the needs of tomorrow’s hoops fan.

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