Sport statistics, sports analysis, and sports analytics are terms used increasingly frequently in the sphere of professional sport. It is evident that the collection and evaluation of ‘data’, to examine past events, or inform future practice, as some form of predictive modelling, is seemingly increasingly necessary in modern-day sport. The quantification of sports performance, which reduces a series of complex interactions, in the playing arena, to numerical data is, at least for the scientist, a process that can viewed as an attempt at increasing objectivity in observing human, and sometimes animal, sports performance. Whilst we view the use of statistics to inform sporting practice as a modern phenomenon, the recording of aspects of sport performance and subsequent statistical profiling of athletes and teams has been relatively common for over 150 years.

In England, as early as the 1880s, statistics of tennis matches were appearing in specialist books. J. M. Heathcote, writing on lawn tennis, presented an analysis of the Renshaw-Lawford 1883 Championship game, reporting, ‘an illustration of the relative frequency of the volley- of 626 strokes, not including service and returns, 502 were taken off the ground, while 124 were volleys, of which Renshaw contributed 97 and Lawford 27’. C. G. Heathcote in his assessment of real tennis also viewed statistics as important, or at least informative, to the reader. He stated, ‘Of such strokes Pettitt delivered 68% that entered the dedans, or would have done so had they not been stopped; the present writer 54%; Mr Lyttleton 40% and George Lambert 37% only.’

Such analyses were at this time neither widespread nor unique to any single country, but they were seemingly viewed as being important in providing the reader with a precise breakdown of the event being reported. In the United States of America, it is evident that notation (systematic chronicling of events) of tennis games, beyond detailing the basic score, was very much part of the game. In Wright and Ditson’s Lawn Tennis Guide (1891), an ‘analysis of the strokes’ for the 1890 Singles Championship game was presented, which included an assessment of strokes returned in and out of court, passing shots by the opponent, double faults, aces and total strokes played (Figure 1).

 

In New Zealand, the 7th November 1903 edition of the Auckland Star included a report of the Doherty-Larned match, in which, ‘Doherty hit out of court 38 times, into the net 35 times and was passed 72 times. Larned hit out 52 times, into the net 50 times and was passed 49 times.’ In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald of the 26th March 1907 presented an analysis of the Rice-Parker match, showing a set-by-set breakdown of faults, double faults, hits into the net, out of court shots and passes. The anonymous author suggested that this was, ‘an informative analysis’, as it was ‘an illustration of how much more Rice volleyed than Parker did.’

In France, a 1912 issue of La Vie au Grand Air contained a round-by-round pictorial representation, or notation, of the punches landed in the Bob Fitzsimmons versus Jim Corbett world championship bout of 1897. A similar illustration of the fight was presented in the San Francisco Call, on 18th March 1897: the day after the contest (Figure 2).

 

The same fight was related in the Buffalo Courier, also in the 18th March 1897 edition, where there appears not only the diagrammatic representation of the event, but also a detailed outline of the method employed for data collection. To analyse the fight, the reporter drew body diagrams on large sheets of paper, which were then subdivided into sections. To each section, the ‘analyst’ ascribed a letter or number: the letter to represent one fighter’s punches and the number to represent the other pugilist’s blows (Figure 3).

 

When a punch connected, the reporter marked the position of the blow with a rubber stamp. At the same time, his fellow reporter noted the corresponding letter or number on a note pad. At the end of each round, the code of letters and numbers was transmitted via telegraph to the New York office. On arrival, the code was ‘deciphered’, to reproduce the diagrams made at the ringside in Nevada. The article suggested that the code, ‘told not only where every blow delivered, was landed and who delivered it, but also the order in which the blows were struck. In fact every statistic of the fight.’

The development of notation systems to record sport performance emerged during the 19th century, and by the early decades of the 20th century were widely used in sports such as tennis, baseball, American football, and boxing. There is extant evidence of notations of horse racing in France and of association football in America; interestingly pre-dating ‘soccer’ notation in Britain by more than half a century! Often the data presented from the observations and recording made in the sporting arena cannot be attributed to any particular person, and as such, some of the earliest pioneers working in sports statistics remain anonymous ‘newspapermen’. However, some notation systems can be ascribed to known sport reporters, and as such, the influence and contribution of these men can be identified and examined further. Despite claims by many academics, sports notation and the development of performance profiles in neither a 20th century invention, nor is it an extension of earlier dance notations; a claim widely proffered in academic literature. It is clear that sport notation and the use of statistics in sport were in fact a 19th century invention, and the incipient development of these observation/recording systems were predominantly due to, although not exclusively, the newspaper reporter.

In the following months, I aim to present a series of articles, in which I examine the work of several of these pioneer ‘journalists’; assessing not only their significant contribution to the field of statistical analysis of sport performance, but also how sports analysis was influenced by both Scientific Management theory and British sanitary reformers of the 19th century. Finally, I will demonstrate how the systematic analysis of sport performance played a fundamental role in uncovering one of the biggest match-fixing scandals the world has known.

Next Month: Hugh Stuart Fullerton: Scorebooks and the Scandal that Rocked America.