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Playing money ball: how to investigate sports institutions

By Daniel Levitt

Sports data often gets overlooked as a source of investigative stories. But Steve Doig of Arizona State University and Paula Lavigne of ESPN showed journalists that we can – and should – hold sports organizations accountable.

Both Doig and Lavigne entered the sports journalism world from other beats. Doig covered science, education and politics for more than 19 years at the Miami Herald. Lavigne was a reporter on multiple beats at the Dallas Morning News and Des Moines Register before coming to ESPN.

Throughout their careers, data was a staple to their investigative stories.

Doig now teaches all he has learned to students on the newly-created sports journalism track at ASU. Lavigne is a full-time sports watchdog, keeping some of the largest sports teams in the country in line. Both shared their data sources with conference attendees.

Doig separated his main sources into three categories: official, unofficial and academics. The leagues – the NBA, NFL, MLB, etc. –  are the official sources. Unofficial sources include ESPN, FiveThirtyEight and Sports Reference. Doig also shared a list of academics, or “obsessed fans” that keep fountains of data: 

  • Basketball Analytics – Run by a couple of basketball fanatics who dive deep into statistics to provide users with insights they won’t find anywhere else.
  • Team Rankings – Started out of a dorm room at Stanford University. Users have access to more than 200,000 pages of projections, stats, rankings and odds.
  • Journal of Sports Analytics - Editorial board made up of writers and team executives from the four major leagues plus the PGA, MLS and NCAA.
  • The Angry Statistician – Run by Christopher Long, a data analyst and also editorial board member of the Journal of Sports Analytics.
  • Exploring baseball data with R - Run by a mix of writers, statisticians and professors who share a love of baseball and R.

Lavigne also showcased her sources:

  • NEISS – The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System includes statistics of all injuries sustained in sports.
  • EADA – Comes from the Department of Education. Has numbers on hundreds of athletic departments around the county.
  • NCAA Revenues and Expenses – Notoriously hard to get your hands on, but not anymore.
  • GuideStar – Many leagues and schools are listed as non-profits, and GuideStar has their 990 forms.

Not included in the session, but some other credible sites worth checking out are Draft Express, Baseball Savant, Synergy Sports Tech and Spotrac.

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