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“Net profit” and the revolution of slow-motion analytics in football and higher ed


Net Profit: Inside the Analytics Revolution of the Beautiful Game Ryan O’Hanlon

Published in October 2022.

Net income convinced me of two things. First, soccer lags far behind other major sports in incorporating data into the game. Second, in terms of analytics, football is way ahead of higher education.

For many of us in both education and sports, the dream of making decisions based on data rather than intuition was born in 2003 after reading a book by Michael Lewis Moneyball. What scientist wouldn’t want to be played by an older and wiser Brad Pitt in Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming college film?

U Net incomeESPN writer and former Holy Cross football player Ryan O’Hanlon tries to explain why football lags behind baseball, basketball and football in relying on analytics for coaching and player decisions.

I’m a big soccer fan, but my favorite team is the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) and my favorite league is the NWSL. Ask me about the best players in the world and I’ll talk about Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh, Rose Lovell, Trinity Rodman, Alex Morgan and of course Megan Rapinoe.

To my dismay, the world of women’s professional soccer is completely absent from O’Hanlon’s account. Reading Net income have convinced me that I should watch more of the Premier League and I’ve been wondering how to take a mini-vacation from the upcoming FIFA (Men’s) World Cup.

But in reality, women’s football is simply better. Women almost do not dive. I’m not sure that professional female soccer players are tougher than their male counterparts (I have no doubt about that), but playing to win a free kick just isn’t part of the women’s game like it is for men. If O’Hanlon wrote a book on football analytics that included women as well as men, Net income would be a much better book.

Leaving behind the blind spot of not including women (which is difficult for me) that Net income what to say about the slow revolution of analytics in football? And what does the slow pace of data-driven football decision-making say about higher education?

Football turns out to be extremely difficult to calculate. Unlike basketball, where data (and Steph Curry) has turned every team into 3-point shooting machines, football is extremely complex. Many in the football world believe that the game is too fluid, dynamic and random for simulation.

The most reliable predictor of any team’s success is not the tactics of the game, the speed of the player or the percentage of assists, but the total amount that the team spends on its players. Spend more money, win more games.

The fact that football does not lend itself easily to statistical decision-making does not mean that the sport lacks analytics. O’Hanlon reports that the top teams in Europe’s rich leagues are investing more and more dollars in analytics to make decisions about player acquisitions, sales (transfers) and on-field tactics.

If Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Barcelona and Liverpool (and I suspect USWNT coach Vlatko Andanowski) can become soccer analytics enthusiasts, might colleges and universities follow a similar trajectory?

Data-driven decision-making in higher education may be an even more challenging task than data-driven football management, but the payoff for both will be enormous.

Higher education is often said to live in a data-free zone. I don’t agree. Learning analytics is starting to pop up in more places.

I don’t know of any large-scale Internet application that doesn’t have data at the core of its operations. The challenge for higher education will be to take what we know about learning analytics from the design and operation of online courses and apply that knowledge to residential/blended instruction.

One key result from Net income is that football analytics is not promoted by the work of clubs, but rather by outside football data enthusiasts who blog about the game.

Perhaps we need more data-obsessed higher education analysts (like my friend Phil Hill) to catalyze the learning analytics revolution.

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