Ted Sullivan was coaching a youth baseball team in New York when he noticed something odd: At least a few people in the stands were looking down, distracted, after every play. Some were texting about the play, others were tracking the game in an old-school scorebook. Regardless, no one was actually watching the entire game.
Coaches also had their eyes on the book, monitoring pitch counts and trying to anticipate where each batter would hit.
Sullivan, a former pitcher at Duke University who spent two years in the minors with the Cleveland Indians organization before attending Harvard Business School, thought there had to be a way to bring youth baseball into the modern era. Long before live-streaming TV hit the Internet, professional baseball fans had been able to track games online, in real time, on the teams' websites. Why didn't the same exist for youth teams and their fans?
And if there was an app tracking every game live, why not compile all of that data so that the teams could look back at a game and analyze it? Could an app even predict where a player would hit, based on where he'd hit before? These tools would make it easier to coach the actual game, just as they've helped college and professional coaches for years.
Within a year, Sullivan figured out the solution, co-founding an app called GameChanger. It started with baseball and softball, quickly becoming the official scorekeeping tool of the Little League World Series, USA Baseball, and the Cal Ripken World Series.
A person still needs to mark pitches and plays, but that information is automatically sent out to anyone logged into the app. They can track what's happening from anywhere, whether they're a parent in the stands or a grandparent on the other side of the country, and don't need to keep a scorebook to remember what happened in earlier innings. The app also sends an alert when a pitcher is maxing out his or her pitch count.
With the app, Sullivan brought youth baseball and softball into the Moneyball era. College coaches and recruiters now have about five years worth of data to pull from when determining if they want to recruit a player – and they can access it without calling a high school coach.
Other youth sports have already been using analytics for years, especially basketball and football, but most of it is monitoring individual performance. Some teams, elite combines, and camps work with Catapult, which offers wearable sensors that monitor heart rates and biological measures that can tell a coach if a player is overworked. The data helps with injury recovery and other aspects of training.
For coaches, there's Krossover, which offers the same type of data as GameChanger but not in real time. Teams upload game film via the company's website, then the Krossover crew analyzes the game and sends back a report within 24 hours. So far the company works with basketball, football, lacrosse, and volleyball teams.
After developing a strong grip on the youth baseball and softball markets, GameChanger took on basketball. Today, it's used by more than 100,000 teams across the country. In the basketball version, a scorekeeper marks every shot attempt by tapping the spot on an image of a basketball screen. A box then pops up with all potential outcomes of the shot. The app is smart enough to know whether a shot was from three-point range, and it tallies the information as the game unfolds.
James Puliatte, head boys basketball coach at Fort Lee (N.J.) High School, says there was a slight learning curve with the app when he started using it two years ago. Within months, though, he was using it at every practice and even referring to the data at halftime. If he sees that the opposition is hitting everything from the left side, he adjusts his defense.
He's always spent hours watching film, but there's only so much the eye can see, he says. When the app's shot chart showed that his lead scorer's three-point shooting was consistently off from the corners last year, Pulliatte designed plays so that the rest of the team was setting the player up in different spots. Pulliate wanted to target his players' strengths.
Aggie McCormick, the girls basketball coach at Bishop O’Connell in Washington, D.C., uses the data for the opposite reason: she likes to spot weaknesses, so that she can help her players work on them.
"It gives me the resources like a college coach, without actually having the resources," she told Yahoo Sports. "I’ve coached for over 25 years and we all know you can think one thing, but a film is black and white." It would take hours to figure out what the app figures out in seconds, she added.
One of her players has gone from scoring 8-12 points a game to averaging 18 since they started relying on the app.
Are analytics really necessary in youth sports? No. And high school and youth sports analytics are still light-years behind what is available to professional and even college teams.
But with college recruiting more intense than ever before, Pulliatte and McCormick say understanding analytics gives their athletes an edge in the eyes of college coaches. It also creates a treasure-trove of data that can help college coaches analyze recruits.
This spring, GameChanger will run a beta test with about 300 lacrosse coaches.
At the very least, Sullivan hopes it will allow more parents and fans to keep their eyes on the game, as it happens, instead of texting the updates to their friends and family at home.