Basketball has always had an incredibly passionate fanbase, fueled by the exciting and fast pace of gameplay and high-scoring matches. Some of the most famous athletes globally are professional basketball players, like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Today, the NBA is broadcast in over 200 countries.
As basketball has grown into a global phenomenon, technology has played a key role in taking the sport to new levels. Data analytics has transformed everything from how the sport is played and coached, to how fans engage with games and athletes. From tracking players’ performance to predicting game outcomes, data has become an indispensable tool for athletes and fans at every level.
This surge of data in the industry has created unique opportunities for data scientists and data analysts who have a passion for both numbers and sports, as well as for UX designers and software engineers who bring this data to life via fan engagement apps and websites.
To learn more about what’s behind this data-driven revolution in sports and the career opportunities it’s unlocked, we sat down with Vaughn Caldon, GA instructor and co-founder of Ballstar, a company at the forefront of data analytics in basketball.
Q: So what is Ballstar?
Ballstar is on a mission to organize the world’s sports information through scorekeeping and operating software for basketball leagues. While professional sports leagues like the NBA have tracked game data for a long time, in amateur and intramural leagues, this information was often sitting in a notebook somewhere in the coach’s basement. Our goal is to eliminate pen and paper, and democratize data for amateur athletes.
Q: So did you come from a technical background? What led you to founding Ballstar?
I’m born and bred in Brooklyn, New York and describe myself as a father, founder, and philanthropist. I like the alliteration.
Originally, the idea for Ballstar was inspired by me wanting to convince people how good I used to be at basketball. No one believed me! Unfortunately, I didn’t have the stats to prove it at my fingertips.
Neither my brother, who co-founded Ballstar in 2016 with me, nor I were technical founders. We had to learn everything about the startup ecosystem and building software, from UX to database design. We actually came to General Assembly in the early days when we needed UX design help and support in building our SQL database, and had students work on it as one of their portfolio projects. There are still aspects of the UI and database today that were created by General Assembly students.
Now, I actually teach data analytics at General Assembly, so it’s all come full circle.
Q: Full circle, indeed! Ok, tell us more – how exactly does Ballstar help leagues use data analytics?
Coaches who take performance seriously need to be able to measure it. If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it. Primarily, though, we offer a truly valuable service to leagues that want to be a little more professional. They want to be able to provide accurate score and gameplay data to media that are covering them. Plus, there are other ways they can monetize that data, such as providing it to advertising partners as a value-add or creating ways for fans to engage with that data, whether through sports betting or fantasy games.
Take the Drew League as an example. The Drew League is a pro-am basketball league held every summer in Los Angeles, and occasionally, NBA players participate during their off-season. The league started out with just six teams, and eventually Nike came on as a sponsor and its games are now streamed by the NBA. Last summer, LeBron James played in the Drew League, attracting even more eyeballs. Without the ability to accurately track score and player performance data, as well as fan engagement, all this growth would be off the table.
Q: That’s pretty cool. So, for a sponsor like Nike, can you tell us more about what types of data they’re interested in?
Nike spends millions every year sponsoring different leagues, including high school leagues, where the kids wear Nike gear as their uniforms. Our software helps them understand the impact of those sponsorships, by providing data on who is in the crowd and the number of eyeballs their sponsorship is reaching. For example, we can see how many people were potentially reached by ads on the scoreboard. We are also building functionality to enable social sharing of game data, and measurement of social engagement around games and players. Over time, companies like Nike could use this data to inform decisions around which leagues they want to underwrite.
Q: How has the rise of sports analytics changed the game itself?
While coaches and leagues use the data to gain a competitive edge and monetize games, we really see the change in the experience for athletes and fans.
For athletes, what data essentially provides is bragging rights. We have the data to validate your proudest moments. Everyone can understand this, we’re all tracking our workouts in apps like Strava or telling our friends, hey I got over 10,000 steps today.
For fans, data analytics has really unlocked completely new ways to engage with the game. Today, the average Joe knows shooting averages thanks to the proliferation of data in sports, and we regularly hear fans citing data in conversations about who is better than who. You don’t even have to watch a game to engage with it, things like fantasy sports and legalized sports betting have taken on a life of their own, driven purely by the stats and the data.
Q: So data is truly adding value for players, fans, and leagues. How can data analytics help coaches and managers make more informed decisions, too?
As a coach, having access to real-time information like “how many fouls does this player have?” can be incredibly important for game-time decisions. However, one of the areas we really see data making a difference is for coaches helping younger players set goals. It’s important for players who are still growing and learning to have goals, but how can you measure improvement if you don’t have that baseline? With precise data, coaches can help players make small improvements – think 1% everyday – that set them up for long term success.
Q: As an entrepreneur, what challenges have you faced in building and growing Ballstar?
All of them, we’ve faced all the challenges. [Laughs]
Hiring good tech talent has been one of the bigger challenges, for sure.
Self-doubt is probably the biggest for any entrepreneur. When you’re fundraising, it’s normal that 99% of responses are, “no.” Yet, it’s still defeating. We’ve all seen the stats around fundraising as a Black founder and it’s hard to not internalize that. You have to go easy on yourself, and be patient. At the same time, you have to have that self-awareness to know when you might be wrong or making a mistake. My philosophy is just get up every day, and do it again.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring data pros in sports?
The sports technology field might be saturated, but trust me, it’s not over. There are new metrics and opportunities that have yet to be explored. The game of basketball alone is continuing to evolve, just look at how the 3-on-3 game just recently became an Olympic sport. If you believe in it, do it. Show up. Improve your data literacy, important for nearly every career now, and gain data analytics skills through things like bootcamps or self-study. If you tie it to a topic you love, you’ll find your passion.
Interested in breaking into a data-focused role that can help you land your dream sports career? Sign up for a free General Assembly workshop to learn how you can get started.