With Major League Baseball (MLB) implementing a number of new rules, including the banning infield shifts, it prompts us to think about the impact technology is having on competitive sports? For example, the infield shift came about because of data collection and analysis that led to greater precision regarding where a player is most likely to hit. If a player hits 80% or more of his hits to the right side of the field, teams would overload players on that side and dramatically reduce the chances of a hitting getting through the infield. Compare this scenario to generations long ago, well before analytics when a baseball manager would have to rely on memory and gut feelings when directing his players on the field — often getting his calculations wrong. With more data to be analyzed, as well as new measuring tools constantly being developed, we are now at a place in sports where games are changing before our eyes. While it might be one thing to see athletes physically develop through better nutrition and exercise, how do you feel when sports change not because of better athletes, but because of better technology?
More data, better sport competition?
Staying with the baseball example a little longer, by accumulating data Major League Baseball was able to identify a growing problem: Largely because of the shift, fewer balls were in play, fewer runners on base, and less action for fans to experience. MLB responded to this problem by banning the shift, and early returns seem to show a healthy return on this decision as evidenced by more balls in play and more excitement on the field.
Baseball is not alone when it comes to advanced statistics and technology, as very few sports today look like they did 50 or 100 years ago. As we continue to develop new ways to analyze and predict data, questions arise relating to the impact technology is having on the competitive spirit and winning because of hard work and scouting, not because of statistical probabilities. Is there a line in the sand we should acknowledge when it comes to advanced technologies? And are we fundamentally changing how athletes compete based on who has the most data?
If we get to a place in the future where artificial intelligence and algorithms become omnipresent in sports, what are we left with when trying to create healthy and fair competition? We appear to be heading that way whether we want these things to happen or not.
How do you feel when advanced metrics determine ahead of time what players are almost certainly likely to do — does this compromise both competition on the field, as well as the fan experience? And is there a commonly accepted threshold relating to the use of technology on competitive sports, keeping in mind the natural, healthy qualities that emerge when athletes compete fairly based on skill and will, not computer programs and algorithms? An argument can be made that sometimes less (data) is better, especially as it applies to fair and balanced competitive sports.