Counting Changes Thinking

By Adam Grossman

On a recent episode of his “Waking Up” podcast, Sam Harris engages in a conversation with mathematical biologist David Krakauer on the evolution of math, information, and complex systems. One of the issues is the idea of numbers as cognitive artifacts. An artifact is considered a tangible item or object that remains from a historical period. Cognitive artifacts have a similar impact but are more focused on the way that that certain processes or ideas leave “remnants” on the way that people think.

Krakauer talks about numbers as cognitive artifacts but in a way that could be considered counterintuitive. Our current numeric system using digits as the basis for counting and measuring is in large part based on what was developed by Sumerian, Egyptian, and Indian cultures starting thousands of years ago. Prior to adopting this digit based (or “Arabic Numeral”) system, Western European Civilizations were using Roman numerals as the basis for counting by using letters as “numbers” (think of Super Bowl LI instead of Super Bowl 51). In the late Middle Ages, Western Europe adopted the digit-based system for counting and measuring and it is still the basis of the numeric system used today.  

What makes this numeric system a “complimentary” cognitive artifact to Krakauer, however, is that changing the way people counted actually changed the way that people thought. More specifically, using digits instead of letters provided people with a new, simpler language to complete calculations. As Krakauer states, it was almost impossible to multiply XII by IV (or 12 X 4) given the resources available at the time. Therefore, much of Western Europe could not multiply or divide numbers when using Roman Numerals. Adding in these new operations to the mathematical dialect enabled Europeans to think about computation in ways they could have never had before with Roman numerals. More importantly, this numeric system is a cognitive artifact that still impacts the way people think today.

What does this have to do sports? The rise of analytics in sports is providing teams with new ways to analyze performance on and off the field. Having such a language provides sports teams and fans with the opportunity to look at performance in a new, novel way. The books Moneyball and Big Data Baseball explore the impact of analytics in evaluating offensive and defensive performance in Major League Baseball (MLB). In Moneyball, the Oakland A’s discovered that other teams undervalued a player’s on-base percentage enabling the team to sign players that could maximize run production at lower costs. In Big Data Baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates discovered that in-field shifts and pitch-framing by catchers were also undervalued by many teams. This enabled the team to employ new strategies and sign players that would maximize the number of runs the team could prevent on defense at a lower cost. 

The primary reason that both books are New York Times bestsellers is that teams employed novel strategies and tactics to win games with a lower payroll. For the A’s and Pirates to accomplish these goals, however, the team needed to learn the language of analytics and statistical analysis.  Both books focus on how long and how difficult it was for the front offices to adopt a new language to evaluate performance. Only after adopting the language of analytics could the teams approach the problems of scoring or preventing runs in novel ways.

The same ideas can be applied to off-field performance as well. Sports sponsorship in particular is an area where a new language can generate new insights. In the past, sports sponsorship had been focused primarily on quantity. The more something is seen or heard then the more value it has to a corporate partner. The language of volume created a reliance on metrics focused on the number of exposures such as cost per thousand impressions.

Block Six Analytics (B6A) has created a new language of sponsorship that is based on both the quality and quantity of impressions. More specifically, we look how alignment and engagement impact the value that is generated by sponsorships. Our Corporate Asset Valuation Model examines how a corporate partner achieves its Return on Investment (ROI) and Return on Objective (ROO) goals across three categories – initiatives (what are you trying to accomplish), demographics (whom are you trying to target), and channels (where are the best places to reach people). The output is our Value Above Replacement (VAR) that communicates how specific sponsorship opportunities generate specific value for a specific partner across multiple different channels in a single metric.

VAR is a new language around corporate partnership that generates novel insights that help buyers and sellers of sponsorship improve strategic decision-making. Buyers can now understand how to effectively allocate their sponsorship dollars across different inventory items. Sellers can identify how certain assets generate value for all partners but also which assets would generate higher values to specific partners. By communicating a more comprehensive value, buyers and sellers of corporate partnerships can identify insights that enable everyone to make more money through sponsorships. 

The reason that numbers have existed as cultural artifacts is that they can change the way that people think. We have seen how the language of analytics has fundamentally changed the way we think about on-field performance in sports. B6A believes that focusing on quantity in addition to quality creates a new language that changes the way we think about sports sponsorship.