We’ve learned there is really no entity associated with the NBA, the media, or even sports analytics companies (most are partnered with the league to some extent) that has an incentive to make statistics and analytics on NBA referees publicly available like we’re now doing. It would have to take a completely independent third party to do it, and to do it at significant cost. That’s one of many reasons why it had never been done before…until we came along. Here’s how it came to be.
We are huge NBA fans, and for years we were frustrated by the fact there was a plethora of stats on every NBA player, but none for NBA referees, who are such an important aspect of every game. Fans, coaches and players complained about referees all the time, but no one had taken on the very difficult task to record every NBA referee’s call to understand their tendencies.
So starting with the 2011-12 NBA season, we took on the challenge by developing a platform and the processes to visually review and log every NBA referee’s call. We now have a very extensive database of more than 12 seasons of data (and counting) that is over 8,000 games of data. We didn’t know how we would fund our operations over the long term, but this mission was so important, we decided we would figure that part out later.
Our efforts to help NBA teams
After logging a season’s worth of games, we started approaching NBA teams about using our referee data and scouting reports. Just think of it: if a team can get only a couple of violations a game to go their way, that could mean the difference in a few points per game, which is massive when extrapolated over an 82-game regular season plus the playoffs.
Over the course of several years, we were delighted when some of the top analytical minds working for NBA teams were interested (and we thank them to this day), with most wanting their teams to try using our data for a season. But analytics personnel typically aren’t the ultimate decision-makers at NBA teams. It’s usually a collective effort, and it almost always comes down to the coaches, GMs and sometimes even the owner(s) needing to buy off on the decision. Needless to say, it can be very challenging to get alignment across so many people, especially for something so new like our data where the traditional culture has been to “just play your game,” and “don’t get caught up in the refs.”
But we felt with the advent of new data and analytics, there would be enough leading-edge teams that would be willing to use our data that could fund our operations. However, except for a few teams that embraced our idea and used it, it didn’t really go beyond that, despite some teams simultaneously telling their fans, “We’ll do whatever it takes to win,” or “If we can improve one inch, we’ll do it.” Or the fact that many NBA coaches continue to complain about referees and get fined a significant amount of money for doing so.
When we first thought of this idea to make sure it was viable before starting our work, one new NBA General Manager told us a couple of times over the course of a few years his team would be interested in our data. But after we built our platform and had a couple of seasons of data collected, he changed his mind. We’re guessing the realities of trying new things within an NBA team weren’t as easy as even HE thought it would be.
Moreover, price was never an issue – the discussions never even got that far with those teams that did not use our data. Quite often we would get no response at all, especially from teams that were lottery-bound where winning a few extra games a season can actually hurt their lottery pick chances (not a great incentive to try to win more games). Again, this seemed to contradict the “We’ll do whatever it takes to win” mantra that many fans hear from their favorite teams.
There are many other reasons why we think most NBA teams were hesitant to use our referee data and scouting reports, despite most analytics personnel in those organizations wanting to try using it. That’s a topic for a different time and place, and at some point we may go into more details on it. It’s an interesting contradiction. The good news is that some of the teams were very professional in how they communicated with us, and we appreciated that. We wish them well.
We also had conversations with some of the top sports media outlets that cover the NBA about partnering with them so their audience could gain a unique and objective perspective on NBA officiating. However, we encountered a similar experience as we did with NBA teams: most writers and broadcasters who cover the NBA want access to our data so they could provide a different perspective of the game to their readers and viewers. But many media organizations are also broadcast or media partners with the NBA, so as the idea of using our referee data made its way up the food chain, it didn’t get very far.
The NBA referee union
We even contacted the NBA referee union to see if we could help them improve the quality of their officiating through our extensive dataset. We reached out multiple times, but never received a response. We thought we would try one last time in October 2017 by contacting someone we learned who worked for the union, and we finally got a response in early October of 2017 they might get back to us in a couple of weeks. But several weeks later, we still hadn’t heard back. We guess it wasn’t a priority.
So if anyone is sympathetic to NBA referees that data is available on their tendencies for all to see (until we decided to suspend those plans in lieu of more promising opportunities), we have two responses: 1) we can honestly say we tried many times to contact the referee union, but they obviously weren’t interested, and 2) every NBA player, coach and front office person is evaluated on their performance based on “numbers” that’s public information, so why shouldn’t the referees? (We refer you to Jeff Van Gundy’s quote on our home page that aligns with that philosophy).
Along this entire journey, we knew diehard NBA fans valued what we were doing, and it was just a matter of figuring out how to make it most beneficial to them. Would it come through helping their favorite NBA team perform better on the court if they knew the referees’ tendencies, or would it come through the media informing them of referee tendencies through their coverage? Or maybe even partnering with the referee union themselves so we could dig deeper into our data to help them better understand their referees’ tendencies, which could improve the quality of officiating for all fans’ benefit. None of those happened, though.
Sports bettors and fans
The good news is that over the past several years, we’ve been pleasantly surprised how often we were contacted by NBA fans as well as people in the sports betting industry, either by companies who specialized in serving that market, or individuals who wanted more information in making smarter betting decisions. Through all of our business development efforts, this particular audience – along with serving hardcore NBA fans who wanted more information on the referees — seemed to be the most promising.
Given the power of the Internet, we decided in November of 2017 to make our data available directly to individuals through a subscription model. We were always cautious about jumping quickly into running this type of business because we didn’t know if there would be enough interest to fund it. It also requires working on activities that extend beyond analyzing NBA referees, such as making sure the website runs optimally for a large user base, responding to customer service inquiries, marketing, legal, accounting, etc.
We are extremely customer focused by nature, so if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right, not just slap something together. So a couple of years ago we started thinking more seriously about making our referee scouting reports available to individuals through a subscription service, and started building the platform that could support that kind of service.
So if you decided to become a subscriber (before we suspended the service shortly after our launch in favor of a more promising business model), we sincerely thank you for your support. If you have any questions or issues, please send us a note through the “Contact” link at the top of the page, and we’ll get back to you as quickly as possible. Over time we plan to proactively reach out to our subscribers to get their feedback as we continue to augment our service to make it even better.
The RefAnalytics Team (follow us on Twitter at @RefAnalytics)