Wall Street Journal Features Ultiworld Stats On Front Page

The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story about ultimate's advanced analytics, pioneered by Ultiworld's Sean Childers and Jeremy Weiss.

July 9, 2014 Wall Street Journal homepage.The Ultiworld statistics editors — Sean Childers and Jeremy Weiss — are featured in a front page article in the Wall Street Journal today about their efforts to bring advanced analytics to ultimate.

After developing some new analytical tools including expected contribution, Weiss and Childers co-authored a paper that was accepted for presentation at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It was there that Journal reporter Ben Cohen caught up with Weiss and began working on a feature about stats in ultimate.

From the Journal:

[Weiss and Childers] met online and teamed up to study 17,883 plays from 3,099 possessions over 68 games from the 2013 club season. “It’s not that big,” Mr. Weiss said of the data set.

Their findings may be Ultimate Frisbee’s first statistical breakthroughs. What they called a player’s “expected contribution” already exists as a metric in baseball and basketball. It’s an estimate of player value, they say, that identifies Ultimate Frisbee’s most talented players and spots those who may have been overlooked—a way of saying, empirically, that one Ultimate Frisbee player is better than another.

They’re more geeked about discovering a team’s chance of scoring based on the Frisbee’s exact location. Mr. Childers and Mr. Weiss crunched the numbers and were able to prove, for example, that if a player has the Frisbee in a corner close to his own end zone, then the optimal pass is actually a backward pass to the middle of the field, even if doing that seems counterproductive.

Both Weiss and Childers are quick to explain how challenging it can be. Collecting data is time-consuming and very labor intensive — many efforts so far have been volunteer-based and certainly not comprehensive. At 2013 Club Nationals, the BYU men’s team — with support from VC Ultimate — helped Ultiworld track dozens of games throughout the tournament. But that’s not nearly enough.

“Sample size may always be the elephant in the room, but we have to find ways to do better if we want to broadcast the sport,” said Childers.

Ultiworld will be continuing its statistics efforts this season by coding all of the available game footage, and, as you can see in the Wall Street Journal video below, some teams — like PoNY — may continue their own tracking efforts:

But the large up-front cost of tracking in a comprehensive way (major sports leagues use expensive cameras designed specifically to track all of the player movement, giving you finer detail from what we can get from Ultiapps Stat Tracking app) means that it will continue in a fledgling state for the time being.

Recently, Ultiworld has been focusing more on video analysis (see the latest on DC Scandal), which is just as important to analysts as the raw numbers.

There is great potential, though, in that hard data. As collection gets easier and cheaper over time, and teams find increasingly useful ways to apply statistics to their game-planning and strategy, advanced analytics will become a major feature of ultimate, as they have in nearly all major professional sports.

As for Childers and Weiss, they are excited to be featured in such a high-profile newspaper.

“I got some candy,” said Childers, mentioning both a Kit-Kat and some Skittles. “That’s how I celebrated.”

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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