Earlier this year, the WNBA announced it would start providing advanced statistics—numbers beyond the traditional box score categories of points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and shooting percentages—on the league website for every game. As Excelle noted at the time, “the news comes as a welcome, even overdue bit of value added to a site that has drawn the ire of the league’s fans and media alike in past years for missing even basic information or any look back at the vital players within the league’s past.”
The NWSL, on the other hand, still only offers the most basic numbers on games: goals, shots, shots on goal, and saves. A soccer fan in Orlando who wants to dive deep into an Orlando City game can find out, thanks to MLS’s excellent match centers, exactly what Kaká was doing for 64 minutes against DC United. If that same fan then started wondering about Alex Morgan’s performance in a game against FC Kansas City, all that’s available is this.
The NASL—the second-tier men’s league in the US system—offers the same stats MLS and other men’s leagues around the world provide. Even the USL, the third tier on the pyramid, recently announced it will add similar coverage. So why is the top-flight women’s league, which many consider the best women’s league in the world, left out in the cold?
As with so many things, the short answer is “money,” but digging below the surface, the issue is a little more nuanced. To get some perspective, let’s back up and look at why and how the advanced stats that power tools like MLS’s match centers get collected in the first place.
The business of data
These days, stats collection is a major business, and it’s mostly done by independent companies. The NWSL, for example, gets the basic stats sheets available on the league website through a deal with STATS LLC. MLS, meanwhile, obtains their detailed slate of data and widgets from Opta, as do the NASL and the USL. In these cases, leagues pays a stats provider directly to collect data and present it in a usable format to fans and the media (mostly—though with the NWSL partnership, there’s a division of labor where employees of the home team punch numbers into a STATS-provided program). But leagues aren’t the only market for stats providers.
Media outlets, both print and broadcast, represent a big chunk of the stats business. Opta, for example, has dozens of media clients, including both print and broadcast outlets, who pay them for data feeds and tools to showcase that data. Those media partnerships mean that the company collects data on a number of competitions that no official partnership exists with. For example, in France, Ligue 1’s official stats provider is Prozone (a STATS subsidiary) but Opta also provides full coverage of the league for broadcast partners like CanalPlus and BeIN Sports.
In addition to league and media customers, Opta also works with clubs directly. So in MLS, while data from every match is collected in the same way, a number of teams pay the company to provide personalized data consulting for scouting and recruitment purposes.
“Effectively, we collect data because it’s a market response, the market wants it,” explains Angus McNab, VP of Content Distribution at Opta. Sports data is a business, and collecting the raw material isn’t cheap. Opta’s process, which involves recording every on-the-ball action, with location data, in real time, requires multiple trained analysts for a single game.
— USL (@USL) October 5, 2016
For the NWSL itself, the expense of collecting those advanced stats packages puts them out of reach—or it did, in any case, when the brand-new league started its partnership with STATS in 2013. It’s an area the league hopes to expand in the future, according to a spokesperson, but there are no concrete plans to do so currently.
But are there parties other than the league itself who would pay for more detailed stats on the NWSL?
From Opta’s perspective, at least, there are murmurs of interest from various channels. At least one club, the Portland Thorns, has expressed interest. “Gavin [Wilkinson, the GM of the Thorns and Timbers] and I have chatted a couple of times,” McNab continues. “We’ve genuinely discussed it with his media team. They’d love it if it existed.”
From the media side, “ESPN, to be very fair to them, have always asked us if we have coverage of the NWSL yet,” says McNab. “They would very much welcome it.”
The bigger picture for stats
In terms of the market for stats in women’s soccer more broadly, it’s worth noting that Opta provides full coverage for both the USWNT and the WSL in England. The USWNT coverage is from the media end, and gets sold to broadcast partners like Fox Sports, ESPN, Telemundo, and Univision.
The WSL coverage, on the other hand, is paid for by the FA. “They were looking to create more noise around the competition, to hero players based on performance,” says McNab. “At the time, as well, they’d just announced a new TV deal with BT Sport, so it’s a perfect storm of things happening.”
That FA deal captures an important angle of the issue: while from a stats company’s perspective, coverage is determined by the market, demand doesn’t always look like hordes of fans clamoring for better data. The WSL has substantially lower attendance than the NWSL; the league’s total attendance for the 2015 season was under 60,000, compared with the 454,100 the NWSL drew. The FA, which runs the WSL directly, pays for the coverage because it sees it as a worthwhile investment. Demand, in this case, came from a single party deciding to pay for the service.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 23, 2016
As with the broader issue of women’s sports, it’s easy to yell “sports is a business!” and blame the various gaps between the men’s and women’s games on a lack of demand on the women’s side, but that lack of demand doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The FA, in this instance, has started to acknowledge that fact and take steps to remedy it.
Unfortunately, the relationship between the FA and the WSL has no equivalent in the US. US Soccer, although it subsidizes the salaries of the league’s USWNT players, doesn’t govern it directly as is the case with the FA and the WSL. For whatever it’s worth, USSF doesn’t yet have a stats partner, though a spokesperson said the federation has been in talks with several companies to that end. If USSF does work out a deal with a stats provider, it seems unlikely that deal would include the NWSL. “We try to hand the reins off to the league on more and more things as time goes on,” said the spokesperson.
Fans step up
Thanks to the absence of detailed official data on the league, a few fans have taken matters into their own hands. Alfredo Martinez heads up WoSo Stats, a volunteer-collected database of stats from the NWSL and a handful of other women’s competitions. The project is a log of every on-the-ball action in a match, just like companies like Opta collect; the difference is that where the professionals use proprietary software to enable real-time data tracking, Martinez’s system requires everything to be logged by hand, a process that takes several volunteers around nine total hours for a single match.
With a replay of a game open, volunteers download an Excel template with a column for each action WoSo Stats tracks. Then, each action gets recorded in its own line. For example, “in row one, you could log a Tobin Heath sideways pass” explains Martinez. “The name Heath is in one column, and her action goes in another column… Then you have another column for defenders. So it was a pass, and she was under pressure from Becky Sauerbrunn. That will be logged in a row.”
After each action has been recorded, a different volunteer makes another pass and adds location data in every row.
The data set for a whole match usually contains around 1200 actions, and you could, theoretically, “read” a game from start to finish—though that’s not, obviously, the goal. Each game goes on a web app that lets you sort players by any statistic. “It’s a really rich set of data just for one match,” Martinez says. “The trick is, after a while, how do you analyze it?”
— WoSo Stats (@wosostats) October 26, 2016
Martinez doesn’t profess to be an expert in analyzing soccer data; he’s just a fan who started teaching himself data science when he was between jobs. In 2015, when he started following the Portland Thorns (“I told myself I was going to watch every match of one NWSL team, and they were the closest geographically,” he says), he became frustrated by the lack of data on the league. Many players’ performance is simply impossible to assess quantitatively. From that 2015 season, “Sinead Farrelly comes to mind,” he says. “She’s a midfielder, she had no goals or assists, and she’s not a defender so she doesn’t get credit for defense, but she was always around. It became a thing I needed to know.”
It’s interesting to note that what Martinez and his volunteers are doing doesn’t look unlike the early days of the sports data industry. In the 1980’s, baseball writer and statistician Bill James, frustrated by the lack of publicly available data on MLB games, started Project Scoresheet, a volunteer network of fans who would go to games and take detailed play-by-play records. James was a pioneer in applying data science to baseball, and now consults for the Red Sox.
Opta, meanwhile, got its start in 1996, but it wasn’t until much later that the detailed stats they collect really caught on. “It was a real struggle in the early years to convince people that football was a game where data and stats had relevance,” McNab says. “People said, ‘it’s not baseball, it’s not cricket. It’s the beautiful game, it’s about more than this.'”
Both cases show that demand for sports data analysis didn’t come out of thin air. In the early days, its proponents were mostly obsessive fans who had to push for their way of seeing the sports they loved to be accepted. The situation with women’s sports today is obviously not the same—these days, everyone understands the relevance and importance of data. It’s just that women’s sports themselves are perceived as less worthy of investment. The important similarity between the two is that demand for any product, whether it’s data in general or data on women’s sports, in particular, can be created over time.
It would be unfair to blame the NWSL itself for the unavailability of advanced stats; the league is still small and doesn’t have the benefit of broad financial backing from a men’s league like the WNBA does. It’s also true that there are other areas, like player salaries and roster sizes, that should take priority. Nonetheless, the unavailability of data is one more area in which the NWSL looks more like a minor league than the top club-level competition in the world.
Even in the absence of an official deal with the NWSL, a company like Opta could cover the league. McNab reiterated several times that Opta “would love to cover the NWSL the same way” the company covers the WSL and other competitions. There’s no particularly concrete answer for why they don’t, except that, even as fans, teams, and at least one media client demonstrate interest, no single party wants to step up and take the financial risk.