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Podcast: Counterpoints

Network: MIT Sloan Management Review

What’s It About?: Say the term “sports analytics” and you’re likely to get a slew of hot takes that rum the gamut. Some might swear by their use, some might consider them the reason everything in sports is bad now, and some might not have any real idea what, exactly, analytics are.

Regardless of where you stand, the question that always looms over analytics, especially in the sports realm, is “just how much can they prove?” Counterpoints seems to set out to answer that question but answering many other questions that exist within the world of pro and college sports.

The synopsis for Counterpoints calls it a show, “for sports professionals, data junkies, and fans alike. It’s a show for anyone who knows that numbers are about much more than the score.” Given the topics covered so far, that does seem to hold up, as they’re less concerned with trying to prove a particular statistic and more concerned with bigger ideas.

Who’s The Host?: Co-host Ben Shields is a Lecturer in Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a former Director of Social Media and Marketing at ESPN. Co-host Paul Michelman is the current editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review and as was also the former editor-in-chief of Safari Books Online, and the former executive editor and director of new editorial products for Harvard Business Review.

What’s It Like?: Counterpoints offers up a simple premise. The hosts posit a question or idea (Is ‘Basketball IQ’ a real thing and can it be measured?) and then speak with an expert on the topic in order to determine the answer. Afterward, the hosts huddle up to decide if they’re convinced. Episodes are compact (20-to-30 minutes) and don’t overstay their welcome. And you certainly come away from the show feeling like you’ve learned a little bit about what’s possible in the world of sports analytics and thinking about how else we might be able to measure the specific topic.

That said, I couldn’t help but feel like I came away from the two episodes available so far wanting more.

Based on the premise of Counterpoints, I kept thinking of like-minded podcasts that share the same space such as Science Vs. and Hidden Brain. Both of these shows present a question or a topic and then spent the whole episode dissecting it in order to figure out the answer. Very often, these shows will interview multiple people in order to get different perspectives on the topic, all of which help inform the conclusion. They also dig into independent research, provide devil’s advocate arguments, and look at the data behind the problem. In the end, they can come away with a clear or clear-ish idea of what the answer is to their burning question.

It’s not that Counterpoints doesn’t seek answers. But because we’ve been programmed to expect deep dives into data and multiple expert opinions on any kind of big question posed by these kinds of podcasts, a solo interview with one person doesn’t quite feel like enough. The interviews themselves aren’t bad, they’re informative. The topics being discussed aren’t boring, they’re interesting. But by posing a big question such as “Do Teams Need to Win to Sell Tickets?” it feels like you’re presenting a challenge that requires more research and insight that we get from what is ostensibly a 15-to-20 minute interview.

That sense of lack is driven home even more by the post-interview discussion, in which the hosts quiz each other on whether or not they feel like the question at the center of the episode has been answered. We’re only two episodes in but it seems as though the answer to that question for every episode is destined to be, “Yeah? Probably?” Perhaps that’s simply something that one needs to accept from the world of statistical analysis, but it does lack a definitive structure that we as listeners are conditioned to get.

All of which is to say that Counterpoints is an enjoyable listen, even as it butts up against certain expectations we as listeners have for the genre.

Who Is It For?: It’s definitely interesting for any sports fan who has ever wondered about how to quantify things that once seemed unquantifiable, like Basketball IQ. The interviews themselves are with leaders in the field and provide interesting insight into their topic.

Who Is It Not For?: The show doesn’t go into any kind of hardcore mathematics or equations, so data obsessives probably won’t come away feeling like they’ve learned something new. And of course, if you’re just hate-listening because you’ve decided that analytics are “bad” and “ruining sports” for some reason, you will not come away feeling any differently.

Where Should I Start: As of the time of this writing there have been two episodes released, so you might as well start with the first one, “Do Teams Need to Win to Sell Tickets?” The second episode, “The Quest to Measure Basketball IQ,” was released the same day. They provide a good balance of topic potential when it comes to sports analytics, from the team-wide to the player-specific.

So, Should I Listen To This?: If you’re interested in the world of sports analytics and want to get some unfettered access to the experts who can explain it in a way that’s easy to understand, you will get that here. It’s also interesting to see analytics applied to topics beyond just in-game value and just how far that can be stretched. As noted, if you’re looking for robust discussions and dissections of the topic, you probably won’t get that, so just set your expectations accordingly.

About Sean Keeley

A graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Keeley is the creator of the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and author of 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse related things for SB Nation, Neighborhoods.com, 55places.com, and many other outlets. He currently lives in Chicago.