What is the real cost of injuries in professional sport

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Stephen Smith | CEO at Kitman Labs

We all know that injuries are a huge problem in sport today and we know they are on the rise. Nobody likes to see injuries happen to athletes and we all believe that teams are negatively affected when they are without their best talent. The question I want to explore today is: “Do we understand how much injuries truly affect teams?”

When we think about the salaries paid to elite athletes today it’s pretty easy to understand that it’s a huge waste of money and financial drain on an organisation when an athlete is injured and teams have millions of dollars sitting on the bench. It has been widely reported that over $700,000,000 was spent on salaries for injured athletes in MLB in 2015, over $450,000,000 in the NFL, $350,000,000 in the NBA and $300,000,000 in the English Premier League but the question remains is this really the true cost?? When teams are owned by wealthy private families and consortiums do they really care about the wasted money when all they really care about is the team’s success. We constantly hear that injuries are just a part of the game and that teams and owners expect them to happen.

I believe this problem extends way past just dollars lost. The effect of injuries extends far beyond just the monetary impact on a team and we have done quite a bit of work to showcase this. When we think about sports at its purest level, only one thing really matters….. WINNING.

To showcase the impact of injuries on the biggest goal of sport, we have performed some very interesting analysis. Many people have tried to correlate team success to injury numbers with varying degrees of success. Our belief is that the way this analysis is performed skews the results and means we never truly understand the impact of injuries on performance. Most research we have seen to date has investigated the link between either the # of injuries that occur, the # of days lost due to injury and or athlete availability % to performance. In many cases this doesn’t showcase anything meaningful and fails to prove that injuries indeed affect performance.

We believe that this approach is deeply flawed and I will explain why.

As we know all teams have injuries and will always have a certain number of injuries. But does that mean they are all the same and they affect a team’s ability to win or lose? The problem with using days lost or % availability is that it assumes all athletes are equal. It sounds bad but unfortunately we know that all athletes in a given team are not the same and their ability and contribution to success is different. To think about it crudely, how much does not having Stephen Curry on the court affect the Warriors? Sure, they are a star studded team but not having him hurts them because he is an immense talent and often times is the difference between winning and losing. This example is not an anomaly, we have it across all sports, Tom Brady for the Patriots, Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid, the list is literally endless, every team has examples. The simple fact is that key players availability affects team performance and once we recognize this we can approach how we analyse this problem in a very different way.

So what does this really mean? It means that we need to assess key player availability against team performance if we want to truly understand how injuries affect performance. We believe there is a number of ways to do this. Some are more accurate than others but technically all should work. If we were to be very granular and accurate about our solution we would look at technical performance in key performance indicators for each position and then try to correlate this to performance. This is a timely process and requires a huge understanding of a particular team’s tactics and what they believe to be KPIs. KPIs would generally be defined for each position as metrics that influence performance positively and can be ranked based on importance and influence. The problem with trying to do this is that we don’t have this performance data and its not publicly available for the majority of sports and leagues.

What we have decided to utilize is slightly cruder than above but we have found it to be hugely successful. Again if we take a step back from the problem and try to work out who the key players are for a team, how could we do this without knowing all of the technical details of how they performed? Given that the sports industry is a value based market or is at least designed to be, we can infer the value a team place on a given athlete by the amount of money they pay him/her. Essentially we can use salary as an indicator of value. This allows us to identify the $ spent by a team on athletes throughout a year. If we then work out how many days an athlete missed through injury and take the equivalent $ amount away from the total team spend this allows us to calculate total $ available to a team throughout a season. We can then easily correlate this amount with wins/losses and find out if this has an impact on team success.

To our delight in all early research using this method we have shown quite a strong relationship between the amount of $ available for selection and games won in the NFL. Essentially what we have shown is that over the last 5 years in the NFL, if you have $93,800,000 or more of total player availability then you have a 97% chance of making the playoffs. The average team in the NFL loses $11,500,000 on injured athletes base salaries alone each season and we have shown that after an initial spend of $70,800,000 to win one game, each extra win requires an additional $2,300,000 worth of players available.

In summary, the bottom line here is not about the money at all. The fact of the matter is that this shows that injuries play an immense role in a team’s likelihood of success. Given that we know certain injuries are preventable and that there are numerous modifiable risk factors, this gives rise to the importance of appropriate management and the use of analytics now not just to showcase the problem but to solve it. It has been reported in scientific journals and research papers that over 42% of injuries in the NFL are potentially avoidable. That’s not just a marginal gain, that’s a game changer.

Injuries cost teams championships and the simple fact is that we can reduce them. Our entire mission at Kitman Labs is to do exactly that and to take the guesswork and opinion out of risk management. We are bringing analytics to a different level in sport and solving what we have just showed is the number 1 problem in sport.
 

NCAA Ice Hockey - Most common injuries
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