Sports Writing, Sort Of

Living in North Carolina, I see a lot of Tar Heel blue, I hear a lot of UNC talk, and I am confronted with a lot of articles about Chapel Hill’s basketball team in the local papers. This season preview, though, is a bit different.

The first game of the 2010-2011 season for North Carolina basketball will be in Chapel Hill on November 12 against Lipscomb. Expectations are high that this year’s Tar Heels team is an improvement on last year’s. They’ll be bringing back a group that played 43% of last season’s minutes and adding the efforts of 3 Top 100 recruits, including #1 Harrison Barnes. North Carolina has the largest deficiency in rebounding where they lost 64.3% of their output. Equally as concerning is three point shooting, where they also lost a big 63% of last year’s output.

The AP gives the Tar Heels a #8 ranking in their preseason AP Top 25 poll. They weren’t ranked in last year’s final poll. North Carolina closed out the last season with an overall record of 20-17, placing 9th in the ACC with their 5-11 conference record. The Tar Heels lost to Georgia Tech 62-58 in the ACC tournament. They then went to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) as a #4 seed, losing in the Championship game to Dayton, 79-68.

It’s pretty standard preview information, just without a whole lot of extra flare. In fact, you could safely say that the writer of this piece has no personality, because the entire article was “written” by an algorithm. This was computer generated content from start to finish, with the only human involvement being in the coding of the formula that created the story.

TechCrunch has a write-up on the compnay today, explaining the basic idea behind the concept. They are a data collector who has decided to turn their warehouse of numbers into content by using formulas to mine through the interesting information about a specific college basketball team and write season previews or game recaps, among other things.

While the piece isn’t overly interesting, I expect that this will become something of a trend in the future. Using play-by-play data and a decent algorithm, you could come up with a pretty solid recap of any sporting event. It won’t have any player quotes, of course, but as the world moves away from paper and towards digital content, it would not be hard to imagine a shift away from reporters getting quotes and transcribing them into a story, as providers instead just embedded full audio or video of a press conference next to the automated recap.

If I was a beat writer, this would scare me to death. I don’t know if this is the future of journalism, as good writing will always find an audience, but this is almost certainly part of the future of sports coverage.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Chris R

I was guessing the piece was from a student newspaper, written by someone with access to a bank of stats but without much experience in valuing information, or synthesizing it with personal observations or historical context. Unless they really are hacks, I don’t think beat writers need to be fearful, at least of version 1.0.