If you're like most observers during Wednesday night's UFC on FUEL TV, you probably noticed a fairly significant change to the broadcast: in-round use of statistics. As fights were taking place, graphics were flashed on the screen indicating differentials in leg kicks or punch totals.
The development is a first of its kind for mixed martial arts. According to Rami Genauer of FightMetric, the company charged with collecting that data for UFC broadcasts, the change has been a long time coming. "I thought it was inevitable and just a matter of time before [UFC] came around to it."
Genauer says the 'limited use' of the practice actually began during the UFC 143 broadcast (Ed Herman vs. Clifford Starks to be precise), but UFC on FUEL was the 'coming out party'. FightMetric isn't calling the shots about which numbers to use during broadcasts either. "That's a decision which is made by producers of the show in concert with a company that we've been partnering with on this project called IDS," Genauer notes. "They're the ones working the head set with the UFC production staff to decide which numbers based on the statistics that are coming through would be good to display on screens."
First, the basics: what, really, is the purpose of in-round statistics? "I think that the thing they are best suited to do is to try to tell the story of the fight," Genauer argues. "There's a lot of different stories which the fight produces."
"You have in your mind before the fight begins a vision of how it's likely to play out," Genauer explains. "Sometimes that goes to plan and sometimes it doesn't. And the numbers are going to be something that helps you illustrate whether you think the fight is going exactly as if it's supposed to, if something has changed or even if you weren't sure how it was going to happen- it might have been a toss up - now that we see the facts on the ground you can start presenting information and data to people and it will give them a better sense for what's happening."
"For us, it was really important that we try and broaden out and give perspective to more than just your average fans," said George Greenberg, General Manager and Executive Vice President for FUEL TV. He echoes Genauer's characterization. "[In-round statistics] gives us another dimension to allow a lot more viewers to appreciate the sport."
For Genauer, it's about bridging the divide between qualitative and quantitative. I challenged him to explain the value of scoring disparities like the kind between T.J. Dillashaw and Walel Watson. I labeled the fight a 'beat down' and suggested the numbers seemed unnecessary to comprehending what happened.
"The fact that you were able to label it a 'beat down', well, that's a qualitative assertion. However, what is the quantitative assertion? What could we say about it that makes it a beat down?," Genauer counters.
"Taking a look at two numbers and contrasting them against each other - 172 to 12 - that's about as wide a gap as you're going to find in mixed martial arts. If we had the time to be able to go back and research, we'd be able to say with some confidence that this was, I don't know what the number is, but the fifth greatest disparity in total strikes ever in UFC history. That's the kind of thing these numbers would allow you to say and that gives people some context and color. It just illustrates the fight in a way that everyone can see, but it just gives you something to hang your hat on."
Genauer further challenges the suggestion statistics are unnecessary by underscoring their use during broadcasts is only unfamiliar and new in MMA. Within other sports, the practice is both commonplace and expected. Genauer says consider how noticeably absent in-game statistics would be for a sport like baseball. Every time a player walks to home plate to hit, the broadcast produces numbers: his yearly batting average or perhaps what he did earlier in the game. "Those are basic statistics. They're in-game," says Genauer.
"They're just giving you point-in-time information, but they become critical at this point for every fan of the sports because they've watched these numbers show up on screen for so long they're conditioned to expect them. If they're not there, it almost becomes a glaring oversight. You wonder when a guy comes up to bat in the seventh inning, if they don't show what he did prior in the game you're like 'That seems kinda weird. I wonder what he did earlier. Is he 0 for 2? Is this going to be his first hit?'"
The service FightMetric currently provides (data collection), is an important component of any broadcast that includes statistics. Genauer, however, is looking towards 'data intelligence'. In other words, taking data and making some sort of conclusion about what it shows or suggests. "Data collection is one task and that's something which, as you can see, is being produced right now. The second thing is data intelligence. It's taking the numbers you have in front of you, doing research, making heads or tails of them," says Genauer.
"I can say with confidence it's something we're working on: being able to produce materials that will be able to be deployed in such a way that when numbers do show up on screen - the announcers, the broadcasters, whoever it is - will be able to reference some work and be able to make some conclusions or comparisons, observations based on some historical information that we can provide to them ahead of time."
Other types of statistics or measurements are also on their way. Next up? Something Genauer calls 'trending'. He says all sort of trends present themselves in the course of a fight. For example, when a fighter takes a big punch or is deeply hurt you can watch the 'ebb and flow' of their offensive potency. "If you're looking at guys who get hurt, their output might decline precipitously after having gotten dropped. You can start to take a look at trends within rounds because all the information comes through time-coded in real time."
Interestingly and organically, FightMetric has become a valued source within the MMA community during disputes over winners and losers or controversial decisions. The company scores all UFC fights using their own methodology and posts the results on their website. MMA media often pore over their data to determine if the numbers confirm or deny the legitimacy of what actually took place. Would those sorts of in-demand numbers also be used during UFC events? Genauer is skeptical. "I would tend to doubt that [UFC] would want to use the data in a way that would try to assign a winner or loser based on the data."
"You would not want to come up with a pronouncement based on the live data we're producing which we know is going to be subject to some revision or correction after the slow motion replay is done," Genauer continued. "I don't think anyone has a desire to go out and preemptively shame the judges because the data came out one way and the decision comes out the other. Everyone has their own opinion on how fights should be scored. That's fair because the criteria are qualitative."
As the scoring issue illustrates, making statistics an integral part of the broadcast comes with challenges, from the logistical to the topical.
For Genauer, months of tests ahead of deployment proved to the FightMetric team human error would pare down the amount of information they could reliably show in real time. "You have to take a look at these numbers on screen, appreciate them for what they are, which is the quick count," Genauer noted. "It's the thing that we can get immediately, but at the same time if you want official numbers that are going to stand the test of time - which are going to affect peoples' records when we do treat UFC records - those are going to be the ones we've collected using our existing data collection methodology. One that we stand behind because we know it's the most accurate method humanly possible."
Greenberg states getting the best and most important numbers in front of the viewer is the goal, but that takes experimentation. The trick is to try new things without the data obstructing the viewing experience. "We probably have ninety-five percent more information that we're not displaying," says Greenberg. "We're going to - week by week or telecast by telecast - unleash a little bit more until we make sure we're doing it in a way that makes it intelligent to the viewer and really doesn't get in the way."
As for the future, less will not be more. Genauer says UFC fans should expect the practice to improve - to feature both data collection and data intelligence. Or as he likes to think of it: to tell the story of the fight. "There's reams and reams of data that's being produced. It's really pretty incredible when you get down into the nitty gritty. The number of data points that we're able to produce in real time is really astounding."