Why do top teams in one sport hold steady while the others flop?
March serves up tournaments for sports fans on both sides of the Atlantic, but this year it also drew a fascinating contrast.
Global rugby’s season-round top performers were Ireland and France. Both were world-ranked number one and two respectively, and both finished just as those rankings suggest – in first and second place in rugby’s Six Nations Championship. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, a single No. 1, 2 or 3 seed made it so far as the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
It’s not an apples-to-oranges comparison to ask: what’s happening in rugby that isn’t happening in collegiate basketball? Why was there greater consistency among rugby’s high-performers in their tournament?
In a word, I think it’s that the professionalization of data use in rugby happened sooner.
How rugby turned to data
Rugby may have roots as an aristocratic sport, but the game historically didn’t have tons of money to modernize itself: it lacked the revenues that typically come from widespread, global audiences. But in the late 1990s, the sport’s clubs modernized and became professional in terms of data and analytics. Lacking TV rights, they had to learn to be incredibly efficient with available funds and actively seek out whatever advantages they could find. They chose to lean into data and tech to find ways to push themselves forward.
Necessity was the mother of innovation.
This affinity for data continues today. The Irish and French rugby clubs have absolutely incredible instrumentation from the grass roots all the way to the top tier of the professional game. In Ireland, there’s a pathway for players as young as six or seven years old all the way through to the end of a professional career. And this is a technical pathway: players and their teams can get ground truth medically, physically, nutritionally. Clubs possess a level of understanding that allows them to better identify top talent sooner and progress them to their fullest potential.
That data-driven instrumentation has also allowed the rugby world to build amazingly strong infrastructure, and I think we really saw this play out in the Six Nations this year: both Ireland and France had to confront significant injuries throughout the season, but they didn’t affect the ultimate outcomes because of the strength, depth, and professionalization these teams had. They could absorb those losses in capability.
What’s different in the NCAA
Compare this now to collegiate sports in the U.S., where teams and leagues have been more recent relatively in their embrace of data. The processes are underway to understand every aspect of a player and the game, but it’s rare that a collegiate coach can achieve a 360-degree view of a player, seeing all there is to see from the time that player was six years old the way you can in rugby. While incredible advances are happening all the time, the sport still isn’t quite there yet.
I think the relatively late start of data and analytics here may explain some of what we saw last month. Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Santul Nerkar had this take that probably captures what most were thinking of March Madness 2023 well:
“Three-quarters of the 2023 men’s Final Four didn’t look like they belonged there . . . This year’s event welcomed three programs that entered March Madness with a higher combined seed total (19) than all-time tournament wins (17) — and zero Final Fours between them. This anonymous trio was symbolic of a tournament in which zero No. 1 seeds advanced to the Elite Eight, a No. 15 seed advanced to the Sweet 16 and just one of the sport’s blue bloods2 advanced to the second weekend.”
Talk about inconsistency with the rest of a season.
The power of culture
Global rugby gave an early model for how professional sports teams could embrace the performance intelligence movement, and Kitman Labs was born in that environment. We were one of the earliest adopters of data and analytics in global sport because of our own experiences in that revolution. I believe that’s why we’ve had the success we had.
One of the biggest elements here has been understanding of the power of culture.
In my personal experience in Irish rugby, I saw how the sport’s ecosystem of respect made it the perfect breeding ground for developing new innovations. When coaches or staff wanted to bring new ideas, they were generally heard out by both peers and players.
In other sports, I think you find that innovators generally carry a burden of proof before they can gain that buy-in. This is difficult to do without a supportive environment however, as most anyone on staff at an elite organization in the U.S. will attest.
But looking ahead, I think the NCAA has a shot at becoming for the U.S. what rugby was in Europe: a forward-looking ecosystem of respect that nourishes and embraces innovation. There’s every incentive for it, and because data is so democratic (as I’ve written previously), it’s an advantage that’s open to all.