Thomas Johnson

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Five Questions About Basketball, Tech and Kickstarter for Vantage Sports’ Cameron Tangney

You could call it the Bill James effect. Or maybe sports technophiles such as Mark Cuban deserve the credit.

Whatever you call it, more and more professional sports teams are utilizing technology in day-to-day operations. The kind of advanced statistical analysis that revolutionized baseball and pushed the term “Moneyball” into the mainstream has spread into other professional sports in recent years.

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Last year, half the teams in the National Basketball Association used SportVU cameras in their arenas to log every movement on the court to track the positioning of players to better assess specific plays and situations.

This year, all 30 teams in the NBA will have the $100,000 cameras, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe reported earlier this year.

That means the information gap between fans and professional sports teams is shrinking fast. A recently launched Kickstarter project wants to further bridge that divide.

Vantage Sports’ latest project, ProScout, hopes to track 16,000 different data points per game, with the goal of producing more complete, contextual insight. Fans would be able to follow specific players or teams for $1-$3 per player, per month, although the final cost has not yet been set. (A model player page featuring Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors can be found here.)

Cameron Tangney, chief technology officer at Vantage Sports and a former Googler, spoke to AllThingsD about the project and the future of technology and sports.

AllThingsD: What effect has technology had on sports in the last few years?

Cameron Tangney: Well, I think what we’re seeing is kind of the Googlefication of sport. Because we now have tools to perform analysis at a level and a cost that we just didn’t have five or 10 years ago, I think we’re seeing the quantification of a lot of aspects of life that we couldn’t really quantify a couple of years ago. … Information is only useful if it helps you make decisions. So I think that’s kind of the next frontier in terms of what we can expect as a fan … getting that information in real time in a useful manner in a way that enhances your experience whether you’re playing it or watching it.

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Who is your target audience?

The Kickstarter campaign is really to try to test our assumptions about consumer demand. We have been building these tools for NBA organizations and for players and agencies and so what we are trying to do with ProScout is try to see: Is there a demand from the casual fan, or the not-so-casual fan, for this type of data, for this level of analysis? We see it being very useful for fantasy sports, fandom, wagering and a bunch of other applications. But before we dove in and started building full-on products, because we’re a small team we need to maximize the ability of our resources, we decided to test the demand with Kickstarter.

How do sports-related startups fare in Silicon Valley?

I think that there are very few people that understand what I’ll call the “sport industry.” I think it scares a lot of VCs. … They’ll say, “What’s your target market?” And we’ll say, for our B2B product for the NBA, for instance, we’re talking or looking at 30 organizations and x number of players and x number of agents.

And because that number isn’t a billion, I don’t think a lot of VCs are versed in how to equate that to a possible business and so I don’t know if there’s necessarily a bias against, but rather there is an inadequate sea of prior examples to demonstrate how a company like this can be successful.

It feels sometimes like there’s a reluctance to invest in something that is not a clone of Facebook or Snapchat or whatever is hot at the time. There’s a lot of people out there who understand various businesses, but there just aren’t that many who understand the sports industry.

Vantage 3How have advanced metrics affected sports discussions for the casual fan?

The problem with a lot of the NBA stats thus far is there’s no great way to measure defensive output right now. You’ve got very limited metrics. … When watching the game and sitting with your buddy on the couch, you can tell that there’s a difference in terms of the way people are playing defense even if that difference isn’t reflected in the box score. So I think everything from settling arguments between those friends to providing an avenue to appreciate a player whose contribution might not otherwise show up in the box score.

Looking ahead, say 10 years from now, how will the fan experience be different in terms of technology?

I think we’re going to have to learn to expect a lot more. As fans, our experience hasn’t changed a whole lot for instance in the last ten years. … So, my hope is that we are capable of doing a lot of real-time statistically sound analysis and visualization.

But I’m hoping that the result of all that is that fans are much better informed and they expect more and we are less consumed with the amazing dunk — albeit a spectacle every time it happens in basketball — and much more interested in things like defensive screen efficiency and stuff like that because that’s really — we feel — a much more significant contributor to a championship or to the winning of an individual game than one, albeit spectacular, dunk.

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