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NBA Hackathon | League puts quality over quantity in ‘data science challenge’

  • Hackathon scheduled for September in New York 
  • Undergraduate and graduate students can apply as two or four-person team
  • Event includes separate basketball and business tracks

Largely viewed as the most progressive US professional sports league by those within the industry, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has taken on a global learner’s mindset, a characteristic that dates back 30-plus years to the time David Stern was named league commissioner in 1984. 

That organisational philosophy and mentality also now stretches to students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, through NBA Hackathon, with the league’s second such event scheduled for September 23-24 in New York City. 

According to Jason Rosenfeld, NBA director of basketball analytics, the ‘buy-in’ from the top down in the league office, starting with commissioner Adam Silver, has enabled the hackathons to become “something really special”.

While the league already has an entire department devoted to basketball strategy analytics, the initial goal of the hackathon concept was to glean a fresh set of insights from fans who also possessed a data science and analytical background. 

“It’s a great opportunity to get a fresh look at the types of problems we’re facing on a day-to-day basis,” says Rosenfeld of the hackathons. 

Basketball analytics-type questions

Students can either apply as a two or four-person team or select the individual option. In 2016 students were initially presented with the traditional application process and tasked with answering basketball analytics-type questions such as ‘how would you construct an NBA roster if you were a general manager’, ‘what statistics would you consider’ and ‘what would the evaluation process look like’?

For this year’s iteration, which will include separate basketball and business tracks, students were challenged with much more statistically difficult scenarios, as Rosenfeld explains.  

Some application questions centred on predicting the probability that a team would suffer consecutive losses at any point during the season or predicting when a team is eliminated from playoff contention. Consequently, Rosenfeld and his team could weed out the pretenders from those who have the “chops to contribute something meaningful at the hackathon”.

The NBA executive says: “At the end of the day, it’s basketball but at its core it’s a data science challenge. You need to have people who have pretty strong programming, data manipulation, data science skills to do well.

“There’s tons of fans but there’s a few who have the skills to build something meaningful over 24 hours.”

“I really do think you have to understand how the league works, what’s important to the league and what are the types of questions we face,” adds Rosenfeld about whether a student without any knowledge of the NBA could be successful in the hackathon.

“You need to have some basketball intuition to make some progress in this field. These questions are very, very hard to begin with and if you don’t have a substantive subject matter expertise, it’s very tough.”

Developing solutions

With the business analytics track, participants ranging from undergraduates and engineers to developers and PhD student statisticians will be charged with developing solutions for back-end problems like ticketing, sponsorships and marketing, among other areas.

Given that a business track has now been added, Rosenfeld expects an even better turnout compared to the 210 students and 60 teams in 2016, which included minimal league promotion in the weeks leading up to the event.

Still, he explains that the league isn’t just going to accept whoever applies in order to just boost numbers and participation. 

Rosenfeld adds: “It’s as much about quality as it is about quantity.” 

Additionally, he says that with the extra time added for participants in the fall, he’s “pretty confident that we’ll get more complete and fully blown out and detailed solutions than we were able to get last year.”

He adds: “We’re confident that with 24 hours this year, students will be able to develop something more detailed, more complete and closer to a finished product to put us in a position to use it more directly, whether it’s on NBA.com, for teams or NBA TV.”

Types of data

For those teams interested in working through the night, there will be food and drinks, even the necessary toothpaste and toothbrushes, staples for the typical round-the-clock hackathon. And while the league isn’t mandating hackathon teams remain on-site for the full 24 hours, Rosenfeld says he wouldn’t be shocked if some did. 

“Believe it or not, if you’re competitive and want to win this thing – and, believe me, some students really want this thing – there’s a good chance they’ll want to work all night,” he says. 

He adds that in an ideal world, participants’ contributions will somehow impact how the game is played, it’s viewed or how the league presents different types of data and information across one of its properties over the next three, five or 10 years. 

“It’s really up to us to come up with good questions and good data to put them in a position to provide us something that is interesting, actionable and insightful,” Rosenfeld says.

One of the major benefits of the hackathons, which seem as though they’ll be recurring events on the NBA calendar, is recruiting for the league and its 30 franchises.

Last year, 15 organisations attended the hackathon, five of which hired individuals for part-time or full-time positions. Rosenfeld declines to specifically mention the teams, although he does call the opportunity for job placement “pretty neat”.

Between selecting judges, determining the rules, writing the application, designing the website, coordinating media outreach and a host of other components, Rosenfeld says that there’s a lot of moving parts before “we hit the green light and go.”

Taking advantage

Since the hackathons involve several departments — such as legal, operations, analytics, human resources and public relations, among others — it’s quite an ordeal, but still an event a smaller organisation could execute on a much lower scale. 

When asked if there’s any sense that the leagues and teams are taking advantage of people’s passion for basketball and obtaining free ideas, Rosenfeld says he doesn’t believe so, illustrating that he puts himself in a student’s shoes and views the hackathon from his or her perspective. 

First and foremost, the NBA hackathon will provide students an opportunity to work with real-world problems using league data not provided to the general public to develop concrete solutions.

In addition, participating teams have a chance to network with league officials, team executives and panel judges, receive giveaways and also have a chance at winning a grand prize trip to NBA All-Star 2018 in Los Angeles and lunch with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

From that vantage point, Rosenfeld — who is still naturally biased towards his employer — says “The benefits are pretty darn cool. … I would have given anything as a college student to work on an opportunity like this.”

EXTRA: Hero ballers versus team players

For the inaugural NBA hackathon in 2016, the league’s director of basketball analytics, Jason Rosenfeld, explained that the winning team won with a ‘Hero Ball’ concept and analysed the effects of stars playing team-first basketball versus a individualistic approach.

Through an open prompt at the event, the group of students compared the amount of time elite players spent dribbling, shooting and passing from the regular season to the playoffs, ultimately discovering that those players who were more selfish with the basketball had a detrimental effect on their team’s overall performance.

While the findings were not necessarily too beneficial for the NBA itself, according to Rosenfeld, the 30 franchises could find value in the team’s discovery.

  • For 2017, prizes will be awarded to the top three teams in both the basketball and business tracks. A grand prize winner will receive a trip to NBA All-Star 2018 in Los Angeles and lunch with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, among other incentives. 
  • During the first year of the hackathon, 210 students from 60 teams representing 53 different universities across the US and Canada competed. 
  • In 2016, the hackathon lasted eight-and-a-half hours while in September students will have 24 hours to complete their project. 
  • Others sports organisations, like Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the Denver Broncos and Manchester City, have conducted their own hackathons in recent years.

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