How the NBA’s Mike James Helps the League Court Data-Driven Success

By Anthony Zumpano

Published on December 22, 2023

The evolving relationship between professional sports and data is a dynamic force shaping the future of sports as a business. From its rudimentary beginnings in the early years of organized baseball to today's intricate data landscape, the story of sports analytics is one of constant evolution. The NBA didn’t start recording blocked shots until the 1973–74 season, and the NFL didn’t treat quarterback sacks as an official stat until 1982. (Sorry, Lawrence Taylor.)

By now, we’ve got more than enough data to tell some amazing stories — did you know more people walked on the moon (12) in 6 years than scored against Mariano Rivera (11) in a dozen postseasons? But the real story these days lies in the value of data for the business of sports.

For Mike James, SVP and Head of Data Strategy and Analytics at the NBA, understanding and using data effectively for decision-making is just as important in professional sports as it is in other businesses. He shared his experiences with Alation CEO Satyen Sangani in an episode of the Data Radicals podcast.

A game where everyone wins

A sports league can be likened to an organization with different business units in terms of its structure and operational model. However, its competitive nature — particularly the direct competition between teams — sets sports leagues apart from typical organizations. The interplay of competition, fan engagement, and dynamic roster management adds a level of complexity dimension to the organizational structure of a sports league unseen in most other industries.

“All 30 of our NBA teams have a data warehouse, but what that means is entirely different,” Mike said. “We think of our 30 teams as individual laboratories for growth and experimentation across a lot of the business, especially in the tech space.” He noted that each team’s tech stack is focused on the use cases each team wants to solve. “That's not the same for every team. We like the approach where teams get to build a stack that's right for them. And it will look different from team to team, and it will look different between the team and the league. But what we all have in common is we are still facilitating the links to keep this information flowing between all of us.”

But while it’s a zero-sum game on the hardwood, having 30 different teams each doing things their own way presents what Mike called “30 different Petri dishes of teams who are trying to solve the same problems.”  

Leadership lays the groundwork for a data culture

Fortunately, strong leadership at the league level has fostered a data-driven culture within the NBA. The league empowers stakeholders by understanding their business challenges and proactively using data to provide solutions. The formal and informal interactions among different departments, teams, and regional offices contribute to building a culture where data is seen as a valuable asset in making better business decisions.

Moreover, James highlighted the role of an executive, or steering, committee in aligning the data strategy with the organization's strategic objectives. “That group is invaluable both to helping our groups stay focused on what the organization is focused on, as well as to ensure buy-in across the organization because it's such a cross-functional group that everyone has awareness into what we're working on,” he said.

This collaborative approach ensures that key stakeholders are involved in decision-making and helps maintain focus on the right priorities. The NBA's commitment to a data-driven culture is evident in its evolution from a customer data strategy project, where data use was limited to a specific area. Its broader data strategy and analytics focus spans various departments, teams, and regional offices to address broader business challenges and enhance decision-making, aligning with the league's transformation into a direct-to-consumer company.

This approach also forms the backbone of the NBA’s Team Marketing and Business Operations (TMBO) division, which analyzes and communicates best practices across the league, resulting in accelerated innovation.

Driving DEI

Mike also discussed his involvement with Women in Data and his role in the NBA's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. He challenges the notion of gender inequity in sports as “a manifest destiny problem” and actively advocates for expanding the pool of talent in sports business analytics. 

It’s not just because he’s the father of three girls. “Even selfishly, it just makes total sense,” he said. “It's very hard to hire people in a competitive marketplace. If we can get more people interested in sports business analytics, it just creates more of a pool to draw from. So it's an absolute no-brainer.” He proudly noted that the data strategy and analytics team at the NBA is majority female, and stressed the importance of creating a welcoming environment. He also emphasized the need to develop diverse pipelines to sustain the growth in sports business analytics across teams and leagues.

From jump ball to jump-starting a data culture

For Mike James, the intersection of sports and data is about more than just numbers and statistics. It's a game where everyone can win — teams, organizations, and individuals alike — with a data culture playbook that embraces innovation, fosters inclusivity, and leverages the power of data for a brighter and more competitive future.

Want more insights from Mike James? Listen to the Data Radicals interview with Alation CEO Satyen Sangani.  

  • A game where everyone wins
  • Leadership lays the groundwork for a data culture
  • Driving DEI
  • From jump ball to jump-starting a data culture
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