"An inside game, a high-tech way: Barr's product provides a clear picture behind the stats"
by Bob Young
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 13, 2006 12:00 AM
Maybe Garrick Barr was born to revolutionize the way professional basketball teams use technology.
He might change the way you use it, too, if you happen to be a basketball fan.
What Barr, a former Suns video coordinator, has done is build Synergy Sports Technology, a Web-based service for NBA teams that is expanding into colleges, international basketball and soon might become part of an interactive fan feature at NBA.com.
Essentially, his company puts statistical data and video together, and makes it available to teams almost immediately and for many different uses, from player evaluation to scouting to coaching.
"He played college basketball, coached in college, son of an engineer. It's the perfect marriage of the technology and the person," said David Griffin, vice president and assistant general manager of the Suns.
"He's the most qualified person on the planet for what he has done."
Barr launched the company three years ago. This is the first NBA season in which the company has provided full service to teams, but Barr said the company will be cash-flow positive by next year.
Right now, five NBA teams are using the service, paying between $50,000 and $75,000 for the season, and several others are considering it.
It's less clear when his investors will begin seeing a return because the company already is looking into growing the core business by expanding to other sports while exploring other ways to leverage the technology.
Among Barr's backers is the NBA's biggest techie, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who made his fortune by co-founding Broadcast.com.
How it works
Let's say that Cuban's Mavericks have just lost to the Suns and gave up too many fastbreak points in the loss.
Mavericks coach Avery Johnson wants to know what went wrong. About 20 minutes after the end of the game, his video scouts can use Barr's service to provide video "edits" - clips - of every Phoenix fastbreak in the game.
He also can get every Dallas transitional situation for the entire season to see how that night's game compared to others.
Or, he could ask for:
• All the plays in which Steve Nash came off to his left in the Suns' bread-and-butter pick-and-roll game - in that game or all season.
• The plays in which Nash went all the way to the basket, pulled up for jump shot or passed.
• A breakdown to determine how successful Nash is when he goes left, whether he's more likely to shoot or pass in that situation and whether he's more likely to go to the rim or pull up - all with links to video clips to see why it all happens.
And it can all be done online with a couple of mouse clicks, or downloaded and put on a DVD - just in case the Mavericks have a plane to catch and Johnson wants to look at it all of this in the air.
"The system allows us to look at every play, in every way, and to tie it back to stats," Cuban said via e-mail. "So, we can watch how we played every pick and roll, track our success rate and also see how other teams are doing it.
"It's an invaluable resource that makes us smarter when combined with a lot of advanced statistical analysis we do."
It helps that Barr knows the game as well as the technology.
A former high school teammate of Paul Westphal's at Aviation High in Redondo Beach, Calif., Barr played at UC Irvine and later worked as an assistant coach under Westphal at Grand Canyon College.
Barr came with Westphal to the Suns, and in 11 years as the team's video coach he came up with a lot of ideas about how to combine statistical information with video to more efficiently analyze players and teams.
Usually, he gave those ideas to the various vendors, who called on the Suns with their latest video editing equipment.
"Everybody that came in wanted to hire him," Griffin remembers.
Barr noticed as he went around the league with the Suns that much of that equipment ended up gathering dust.
So in 1998 he founded Quantified Scouting Service, which logged virtually every possession of NBA games to provide offensive tendencies reports.
It was a first step, and in 2003, Barr decided it was time to take it further, quit giving away his ideas and launch a company that could combine the statistical analysis with video and make it available in real time.
He left the Suns.
With the advantage of a coaching background, he knew what his clients would want, and with an intimate knowledge of his competition, he knew what they were - or were not - getting.
What he didn't know was whether technology would support it or what it might cost.
A family member hooked him up with Nils Lahr, a former Microsoft engineer and chief architect of iBeam Broadcast Corp., which once was one of Silicon Valley's first big online content providers.
To say Lahr is an expert on streaming video is an understatement. In the tech world, he is Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, a superstar.
"Garrick knew what he wanted to do. He could imagine the workflow. He just didn't know if the technology would get him from point A to point B," Lahr said.
Lahr got him there.
"When I was at Microsoft six years ago, there is nothing we're doing now that we couldn't have done then," he said. "But the startup cost at that time would have been millions and millions. We had to invent a few things that didn't exist for this, but the technology at that time would have worked. However, the business model would have killed it.
"Now, every two or three months you read a press release about somebody in sports trying to do something else on the Internet. The industry has grown by $200million just from last year. It's growing exponentially.
"With streaming video and stats together on the Internet, we can include fans in ways that have never been possible. And people are willing to experiment. Verizon and Comcast, companies like these need content for their portals. There is a lot of money involved."
Barr's real satisfaction comes from seeing something that he envisioned come to life - and in full-color streaming video.
Pat Riley, Miami Heat coach/president, signed up first. Four other teams followed. Several others are testing the service and three recently inquired about it.
"The word is starting to spread," Barr said.
In the next few weeks, SST also will begin logging defensive situations and player tendencies, which will make it even more applicable.
NBA Entertainment is in talks with the company to use the technology for an interactive feature that fans can use if they sign up for NBA.com's "Velvet Ropes" service for the playoffs.
"Everybody in the NBA will have Synergy's service," predicted Donnie Walsh, president and CEO of the Indiana Pacers, one of Barr's clients. "They're way ahead of all their competition."
And this technology evidently is not gathering dust.
"If you played video 24 hours a day, seven days a week, non-stop for 2 1/2 months, that's the amount of video our clients have viewed in the last 5 1/2 months," Lahr said. "That's a fairly small set of teams, but their usage is extremely heavy."
And Barr's company also provides in-arena "cache" servers for clients. All SST's logged info goes right to the servers, which will hold a season-and-a-half worth of data and video, allowing people throughout an organization to utilize the service in-house all at the same time without tying up valuable bandwidth.
"Garrick was right," Lahr said. "What we're providing is what NBA teams needed."
The Pacers' Walsh agreed.
"It's exactly what NBA teams want and can use," he said. "From our team's standpoint, we can have everything we want on a team we're playing tomorrow before we even get on a plane after a game tonight.
"From a college scouting standpoint, if we want to draft a guy and we expect him to be able to post up, in minutes you can look at every post-up play he's been involved in and break down what he does when he posts up.
"From an international scouting perspective, it can be a big cost saver. It's really pragmatic."
Griffin, who said the Suns are testing the service, is hoping to sell USA Basketball on Barr's technology to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
And he believes it might be an even easier sell once NBA front-office types figure out that it can help them as much as their coach.
"A lot of times, guys are going to say, 'I'm not spending $50,000 on that for my coach,' " Griffin said, laughing. " 'But I'll spend $50,000 on me!' "