Having grown up in the era of sabermetrics, it’s always been easy to take one aspect of baseball for granted. Pop open your laptop, and a practical plethora of statistical information sits at your finger tips, just waiting to be prodded and poked for new ideas. FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Brooks Baseball, The Baseball Cube … if there’s a stat you want to look up online, you have access to it.
It’s a dream that’s only recently been afforded to those in the hockey world, where websites like Extra Skater offered fans a trove of advanced statistics thanks to databases made available by NHL. Whether it’s Corsi or Fenwick or PDO, these numbers have become a central part of the discussion between fans, writers and others around the game.
The movement has gained so much traction so quickly that many of these people, including Darryl Metcalf of the aforementioned ES, have already landed full-time gigs inside the league. A new era has begun, some might say.
We lost one great resource when Metcalf became a member of the Maple Leafs front office, but hard work is already being done to create the next Extra Skater. It’s only a matter of time before someone else puts together a website as informative and intuitive as we’ve seen in the past. There’s just too much demand for this kind of stuff in 2014.
That is, unless the NHL does something to put an end to this. Buried in the news of a slow August came word of a minor change to the league’s Terms of Service. Suddenly and quietly, the league added language prohibiting “unauthorized harvesting of content.”
In other words, the NHL gave itself the power to say when and where people can use their statistics for commercial purposes. As Greg Wyshyski of Puck Daddy noted at the time, the implications of the new language in the ToS could be massive for advanced statistics websites, which do precisely what the league was saying it might stop.
Now, this may be premature. The NHL has done nothing specific to indicate that it will block these websites from functioning. “[The NHL] knows sites are harvesting data from NHL.com with software; they say the provision was ‘not added to counter anything that we know of at this moment,’” Wyshyski wrote. Extra Skater shut down because a team hired Metcalf, not because the league blocked his access to stats.
But the very fact that the NHL placed these conditions in their updated Terms of Service gives reason for concern. We saw how MLB tried to do something similar a few years ago, when a federal judge ruled against baseball’s efforts to limit the ability of fantasy leagues to use player names, team names and statistics without licensing agreements.
The NHL may not be able to copyright data, but the new language seems designed to stifle the rapidly expanding industry of self-made statistical analysts. The end game would presumably be to make money: “To then license those numbers to sites that use them, promising to deliver them in an easy, less-time consuming and Terms of Service-friendly manner. Which is a logical end-game should a site like Extra Skater become a massive success.”
That might be good business for the league, certainly in the short-term, but I wonder how it could impact the upcoming generation of aspiring scouts, analysts and general managers. One can’t fault the league for seeing an opportunity to pad its revenues – that is the goal, after all – but might it be failing to see an opportunity to create a farm system for front offices?
It’s not like these start-up websites could necessarily afford licensing fees. Such a system would, in many ways, effectively limit how many of these websites would exist. That might be what the NHL wants, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily in their best interests.
In baseball, where the statistics flow like water and everyone has a glass, teams snap up the web’s premier analysts on the regular. Just recently, the Chicago Cubs hired Baseball Prospectus’ national prospects writer, Jason Parks, to become a full-time scout for their organization. The guy who Parks replaced at BP, Kevin Goldstein, left the publication to join the Houston Astros’ staff. He’s now their director of pro scouting.
Before Parks and Goldstein, there were Keith Law, Mike Fast, Colin Wyers, Keith Woolner, James Click, Dan Fox and presumably others. These were all brilliant baseball minds that simply needed resources and a platform to show their skills. There’s no reason things should be different with hockey.
And that’s why the news from last month leaves me concerned, even as the league continues saying the right things and leaving little reason to be genuinely worried. New advanced stats websites are emerging every week, and while they aren’t as polished as Extra Skater was in its prime, their very existence speaks to the positive intentions of the NHL concerning public access to statistics. But the NHL has given itself the power to make things difficult for these people, and it’s hard not to wonder when they’ll eventually use it.
With proper support, the NHL has the opportunity to create an online community that wouldn’t just serve fans, but franchises as well. We already know that team officials were using Extra Skater as a resource to make important decisions, and many around the league already have analytics departments in place. Imagine if we had several options, and a degree of discourse that would allow for even greater creativity and innovation. That’s a future the NHL should embrace, rather than pursuing licensing fees that ultimately would be a drop in the bucket for a multi-billion dollar industry.
This has supposedly been The Summer of Stats in hockey, but in an ideal world, it’s only the beginning. Metcalf, Tyler Dellow and others were pioneers of sorts; let’s hope their work sets the stage for something even more interesting.
Satchel Price is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. His work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus, and you can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.
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