A video slam-dunk for the NBA

Synergy Sports offers Web-based video of every NBA player, making it easier for coaches to prepare for opponents.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
5 min read
Garrick Barr, a computer hobbyist and former college basketball player, is trying to merge both of his passions into one sports technology company.

Barr is the founder and CEO of Synergy Sports Technology, which is attempting to edit, log and organize digital video clips of every play from each game in the National Basketball Association this season.

It's a TiVo-like service for basketball decision makers. Coaches and scouts can access the video at Barr's Web site and within seconds watch streaming video on their laptops of every three-pointer attempted by Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant or every tomahawk dunk by Cleveland Cavaliers swingman LeBron James.

Across the sports landscape, professional teams are taking a more scientific approach to running their businesses. With so much money on the line, executives and coaches who often relied on hunches and gut instincts are starting to do what nearly every other industry already does--make decisions based on hard data.

The 2003 best-selling Michael Lewis book, "Moneyball," showed how data analysis is starting to change baseball. That lesson has not been lost on NBA teams.

In an e-mail interview, Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and the co-founder of Broadcast.com, said he has been impressed with Synergy but was "only surprised that it took this long" for a service like this to emerge.

Founded in August 2004 by Barr and Nils Lahr, a former Microsoft engineer who worked on the original Windows streaming media, Synergy is in its first full NBA season. With four paying customers--Dallas, Miami, Boston and Indiana--the company is trying to grow without any venture funding or seed money from NBA teams. Barr's backers are mostly friends and family.

Nonetheless, Synergy's system is more than a digital highlight reel. NBA executives say that it could be the start of a new trend. During an 82-game season, every nuance a coach can pick up about a weakness in an opponent's offense or in the jump shot of one of his own players can mean more points on the scoreboard.

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Video: Every play counts
Synergy is logging NBA games and correlating video with the stats. CNET News.com's Harry Fuller introduces you to the man in charge of logging this entire NBA season.

Before now, coaches could wait days while their staffs edited, logged and transferred digital files to DVDs. With Synergy, a coach logs on at Synergy's site and performs a search for the video he wants. The clips streamed to his computer can be slowed, paused or reversed. He sees what he wants when he wants it.

After watching six players for an hour apiece on Synergy one night last week, David Griffin, the Phoenix Suns' assistant general manager in charge of player personnel, said he "knows so much more about those guys now."

"To be able to watch video of every NBA player and watch every facet of their game without any advanced preparation is unheard of," he said.

Barr employs more than 30 people, or "loggers," as Barr calls them, to match up video of each play with important statistical information: which players have the ball, what type of play is involved and the result.

Combining statistical information makes it possible for Synergy's search engine to quickly find what coaches are looking for. Synergy can help Lakers' coach Phil Jackson pull up clips of the Portland Trail Blazers on the fast break in the Rose Garden, their home arena. It can show Miami coach Pat Riley each of the driving layups taken by Suns guard Steve Nash this season. Whatever Riley learns can help him instruct Heat guard Dwyane "The Flash" Wade on how to defend the league's reigning MVP.

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Video: Follow the bouncing ball
Synergy hopes to sell its analytical tools to every NBA team. CNET News.com's Harry Fuller looks over the shoulder of Synergy's Andy Graham to see what the pros can see.

By offering such a comprehensive view of players and teams, Synergy could one day make it possible for NBA franchises to reduce travel and labor costs, says Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh.

NBA teams have seen their travel costs skyrocket in the past five years, particularly because of scouting for high school and international players in addition to league opponents. Barr doesn't disclose what Synergy charges other than to say that the figure is five digits. But whatever it is, Walsh said the system is worth the money.

Still, Walsh said, nothing will ever replace the need to scout players in person--at least once.

"I think it will always be important to see players perform live," said Walsh, considered one of the league's best talent evaluators. "You need to get a feel for a player's size and quickness. Once that's done, maybe you can track his development on a system like (Synergy)."

Synergy's system was developed by Lahr. Barr's brother-in-law introduced him to Lahr, who acknowledges not being a sports fan. Nonetheless, he was intrigued by Barr's idea and quickly agreed to join the project as a partner.

"The infrastructure of the Net has gotten to where it can now support these kinds of models," Lahr said. "We couldn't have done this just a few years ago."

The way it works is that media from the NBA is first changed to the format used by Synergy. It's then distributed over a private network to Synergy's loggers. Once they edit the video, they use their own computers and bandwidth to send the results to Synergy's data center. The data is linked up to high-resolution video where it's made available to customers on the company's Web site.

It was Barr who recognized the need for statistical analysis to be paired with video. While numbers largely define baseball, statistics for such important tasks as setting picks or challenging shots are not widely recorded. In the NBA, numbers don't tell the whole story.

Barr understood this and after putting together video for the Suns, he knew if he found a more efficient way to process video, teams would come running. "It was just obvious to me how much easier it would be if someone were tagging clips for every play," said Barr, 54.

After floating the idea past many of his contacts on other NBA teams, Barr quit his job with the Suns and went to work developing Synergy. For his company to receive permission from the NBA to access game footage, he needed to sign up at least one club as a customer. The league will only grant video rights to companies doing business with at least one NBA team. He sold the Miami Heat on Synergy, and that opened the door.

Now some of Synergy's NBA customers believe that the system will soon be adopted by the rest of the league.

"There is an unlimited amount of analysis that can be done combining video and stats," Cuban said. "Every team is looking at the same information and video differently, which leads to unlimited perspective and opportunity."

The NBA could be just the start for Barr. He recently began offering college basketball games on Synergy, and branching into college sports could mean big bucks for the company. While there are 30 professional basketball teams, there are 334 universities competing at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I level. And don't forget about football, where watching films is a requisite for game preparation.

"Football will be the mother lode for Synergy," said the Suns' Griffin. "The NFL spends so much money and time on video."