Strength in Numbers: The Promise of Advanced Analytics in Women's Basketball
*Editor’s Note: We published an earlier version of this article. This is correct version.
In 2013, the NBA announced an agreement with STATS LLC to use the company’s SportVu Player Tracking technology for all thirty teams. This involved the installation of six cameras into the rafters of every arena to gather data that would be analyzed by STATS software. These cameras track the positions of players and the ball 25 times per second. Using data on speed, distance, player separation, and ball possession, this technology generates a comprehensive set of statistics in real time, as well as post-game corrected data. This information, which is at the crux of player, team, and coach decision-making, is scarce in the WNBA.
Adoption of advanced analytics techniques has revolutionized the NBA, and NCAA men’s college basketball has quickly followed suit, with the Duke University Blue Devils being the first to have their arena and practice facilities equipped with tracking technology. For instance, the 2017-2018 first-seed Houston Rockets created two of the highest rated offenses in history during back-to-back seasons by having players predominantly use three-point shots and restricted area shots. In addition to drawing fouls in order to shoot free throws frequently, these are the three most efficient scoring methods.
The NBA has since switched to Second Spectrum in advance of the 2017-2018 regular season, which logs far more data on the average player, links all data directly to in-game footage, and provides a more accurate raw data feed with a faster turnaround time than SportVu. As the NBA takes another massive step forward in using data analytics to better understand and improve the game, the WNBA continues to lag behind. Of the 12 WNBA teams, only four will be playing in arenas equipped with optical tracking technology this coming season. This is because these are the arenas that are shared with their NBA counterparts. Information on the extent to which these WNBA teams use this technology, with operating costs in the range of $100,000 per season, is difficult to find; there’s no mention of the WNBA on the STATS LLC or Second Spectrum websites.
The lack of data is indicative of yet another way in which women’s basketball is not accorded the legitimacy of men’s basketball. Generating and applying analytics confers a sense of depth; it frames the game as multilayered and intricate, requiring time, commitment, and a grasp of numerous concepts to understand thoroughly. It’s no surprise that analytics have become increasingly appealing to fans, as they offer a way to immerse yourself in the games long after the game clock has expired. Understanding the quantifiable impact that players have on the offensive and defensive ends of the court allows fans to invest themselves in the players and develop a greater appreciation for what they do.
Advanced metrics have been particularly useful in characterizing defensive play, which is not represented in the box score outside of raw blocks and steals numbers and has been traditionally overlooked. Moreover, organizations like ESPN use Second Spectrum data to provide reporters, broadcasters, and writers with the tools needed to provide in-depth, thoughtful coverage for fan engagement. Analytics bolster the credibility of the NBA in a way that the WNBA is struggling to achieve.
Individually, the analytics revolution is molding a generation of players who are efficiency-oriented. Scoring 25 points on 24 shots is valued differently from accomplishing the same total in twelve. Equipped with a wealth of data, players are empowered with intimate knowledge of virtually every facet of their game — whether they are better driving the lane to the basket to the left or to the right of the defender, whether they score more points per possession in isolation or in the pick and roll, how many shots they contest and if they do so in a way that reduces the opponent’s shooting efficiency. Just getting the ball into the basket isn’t enough anymore and players are using data to adapt their skill sets to reflect that.
The Minnesota Lynx, one of the WNBA teams with access to optical tracking technology, use analytics to devise and execute their defensive strategy. This involves mapping the “heat zones” of the opposing team, or the areas from which opponents shoot the best. The Lynx use their formidable team defense — anchored by four-time Defensive Player of the Year, Sylvia Fowles — to force opposing players to shoot from more unfavorable locations on the court. The Lynx have won four championships since 2011. They happen to be the only WNBA team with a hired statistician. Advanced analytics are no longer just obscure trivia — they make the difference between wins and losses. To that end, they inform player, team, and coach decision-making, both on and off the court.
In many ways, the WNBA is modeling itself after the NBA, with teams adopting a pace-and-space-oriented style of play that involves pushing the ball up the floor quickly and frequently while spreading the floor with good three-point shooters. The first-seed Seattle Storm attempted 816 three-pointers this season, which is a league record. Every team played at a pace of 75 or more possessions per 40 minutes during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, which are the fastest paced seasons in WNBA history thus far. But the women’s game is not a facsimile of men’s basketball. For example, WNBA players are shorter on average and play with a smaller ball, which decreases shooting percentages around the rim. It is not enough to simply assume that all of the principles that work for the men’s game directly translate to the women’s game. Women’s basketball leagues need their own data.
Even the data that the WNBA does have, which it gets through its subscription to Synergy Sports Technology, is only available 12 hours after the game, while data for NBA games is provided nearly in real time. This is an inconvenience that compromises game-planning and preparation when the schedule features games with quick turnaround, such as a playoff series. This is especially pertinent for the WNBA, which plays 34 games in 90 days, including numerous back-to-back games.
Critics deride the WNBA for its lack of success relative to the NBA, scapegoating the perceived inferiority of women’s basketball. In reality, the WNBA is a considerably younger league and has managed to keep growing despite lacking the tools of its counterpart. Developing infrastructure to support advanced analytics has been a major goal of the NBA for years, and for good reason: it improves the quality of the games, engages fans, and, in turn, boosts the marketability and revenue of the league. It is an investment that is widely viewed as necessary, except in the case of women’s sports. Advanced analytics are key to fostering the growth and appreciation of women’s basketball in its own right.