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Friday, December 23, 2011

Science of Sport Awards: Website of the year

2011 Awards: The website of the year award

Choosing a best website is an impossible task, because it depends very much what you are looking for.  My criteria for a great website include insight and analysis - I don't wish to simply read about what happened, because chances are, if I'm a sports fan, I've already seen it.  I don't wish to wake up to read that Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in the US Open Final, because I was awake until 2am watching it!  Rather give insight, analysis and break down why he won, how he did it.

Similarly, when Andy Schleck attacked on the Col d'Izoard in this year's Tour de France, most of the reporting was on who covered which break, how big the time gaps got, and so on.  Nice to know, but I enjoyed watching it myself.  So again, peel away what happened, and tell me why and how.

Of course, that doesn't negate the need for a great news website, and so some of the honorable mentions in this category of Best Website are just that - great sources of news.  They are:
  • Letsrun.com - the best source of athletics news that I know.  It's the first website I visit every morning, because by then (SA time), it's been updated with pretty much every snippet of information from the world of athletics in the last 24 hours.  So within 2 minutes, I have a sense of who is doing what, and where.  It's here that I learned of Wanjiru's death, Bekele's comeback, and a host of doping positives.  Sometimes it's very US-centric, but that's perfectly understandable, and they do a great job of promoting the NCAA competitions.  During major competitions, and in the build-up to major marathons, the Johnson brothers also do some great analysis, and for any athletics follower who wants to be informed, it's a great place to start

  • Supersport.com - one of your nominees, and I'll back it since it's local.  A great collection of news stories, covering the entire spectrum.  The same can be said of Sports Illustrated (particularly for NFL, MLB and NBA coverage)
Now for the insight and analysis...

We'll do this by sport, since different sports lend themselves to a different way of analyzing them"

Football - Zonal Marking

This was my pick as the best website of 2010, and it remains #1 in 2011.  It's part of the Guardian Sports Network of which we are also members (more on this later), and it provides analysis of football tactics.  It's lucid, to the point and so insightful that even a part-time watcher can feel like an expert for understanding the intricacies of the game.  I do quite a bit of work with rugby analysis, and the clarity of analysis of this site is something to aspire to.  For a recent example, here is the analysis of Barcelona's 3-1 victory over Real Madrid from early December.  

Tennis - award withheld, but Jon Wertheim's column gets an honourable mention

Tennis is a sport that is really lacking in quality analysis.  Unless I'm missing something, in which case please let me know.  It just seems that there is no technical analysis of the game, despite the fact that the sport would lend itself to some amazing analysis.  I've tried to do this myself - two years ago, I emailed Hawkeye, the company that do Tennis' Review system, because part of what they collect is a dizzying array of data on things like shot placement, rally hit point, shot speed, shot accuracy and so forth.  To pull some of that data and use it to analysis match-ups and opponents seems, to me anyway, too good to be true.  Yet it doesn't happen.  The Hawkeye people told me that they keep the data for a few weeks, then discard it, and it isn't made publicly available.  Yet this is clearly not true, based on what I've seen over the years.

To give you an example, they show stats and data during the change of end breaks during matches, and will from time to time show how a player (say Rafael Nadal) is returning serve.  They can tell you where he hits the ball relative to his own baseline, and where his return of serve is landing on the other side of the court.  Earlier this year, I think at Wimbledon, they showed a comparison between Nadal in 2010 and Nadal in 2011, basically showing that he was further back when receiving and was dropping his returns around 1 to 2m shorter than the previous year.  Against the same opponent.  This kind of data would have me licking my lips at the range of possible questions one can answer.  Why does Federer struggle against Nadal?  Why has Djokovic not lost to Nadal in 2011?  Is a given player vulnerable to certain shots?  Of course, the answer to these questions is often known intuitively and based on experience, by coaches, players, keen observers.  But a website that turns this data into meaningful insight would be great for tennis.

So tennis doesn't have a website - it's actually very weak.  But for an honorable mention, check out Jon Wertheim's column with Sports Illustrated.  Sometimes it takes the form of a mailbag, with Q & A, others it's just comment on the game.  It's also lucid, to the point and insightful. 

General - the Guardian Sports Network

I mention this mostly because one of our big developments of 2011 was joining the Guardian as a member of a network of blogs they created to cover sport more comprehensively.   You can read about the network and its members here.  There's a heavy focus on football (it's the UK, after all), but some excellent sites covering things like sports law, cricket, sports management and general sport.  Well worth a scan once in a while, and you may find a site that particularly appeals to you (excluding ours of course!)  I am sure that with the London Olympics on the horizon, there'll be some great pieces coming out of this network in 2012.

Cycling - the Inner Ring

Many of you nominated The Inner Ring as your favourite website.  It does, well, pretty much everything.  The sub-heading is "News, Comment, Analysis, Chat", and that's pretty much you get.  Here's their "About" page which pretty much sums up their value.  If you want to stay on top of news, but get some insight, this is a great place to start


Perhaps a surprising choice, but those of you who are active on Twitter will know exactly what I mean.  There is no better way to zone in on your area of interest, and then stay in a permanent state of "eavesdropping" on your sport than Twitter.  We have a Twitter page ourselves (follow now!), but I confess that I don't use it for news as much as to add a little value to what is on the website.  I also don't follow as many people as I should, but I think that if I did, my day would rapidly evaporate as I pursue every intriguing comment and link that is tweeted by journalists and those within the sport.  

During events (the Tour, the IAAF World Championships, doping cases etc), it's the best way to get instant news updates, and as a starting point for further reading.  Of course, the danger is the "clutter", but you'll soon learn who tweets the valuable content and who throws out opinion only (unless of course the opinion is what you're after!)

Overall, Twitter has changed the way we follow sport, and so in terms of broader impact, it's probably the most significant website of the year.

So that's a wrap of the websites that cover some of the sports that I'm interested in.  Apologies for not providing links to other sports, like cricket, rugby, darts and so forth!  Feel free to use the comments section below to throw some of your own favourites out there!

Next time, we'll look at the biggest controversy of the year in sport.  But first, Christmas...!