When Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros planned Athletes Unlimited, they knew they wanted their professional women’s sports venture to be different.
And really, it had to be. Too many women’s sports leagues have come and gone or languished in little-sister status, overshadowed by the corresponding men’s league. For this one to be successful, it had to be willing to take some risks and change things up.
Part of their quest for distinctiveness came in the form of introducing individual scoring into team sports, much like fantasy sports have done, except Athletes Unlimited takes it a step further, eliminating teams entirely. Instead, the top four performing players from each week draft their team for the following week. Patricof and Soros tested this individual-scoring, no-set-teams system with a softball league last fall, and next month, it’s volleyball’s turn to test the concept.
In April, when AU first announced its intention to add a women’s professional volleyball league, the founders went on a hunt for volleyball insiders who could help them develop the scoring system that was so key to the vision they had for the league. They were already in discussions with USA women’s head coach Karch Kiraly, who would eventually join AU’s advisory board, and Kiraly pointed them in the direction of Chris McGown.
The former BYU men’s head coach and more recently a consultant coach with the USA women and Dutch women’s national team, McGown not only had connections and coaching experience, but is also the president and co-founder of Gold Medal Squared, an organization which provides coaching clinics and resources based on a very scientific and analytical way of looking at the game.
“I’ll be honest, I was a little skeptical when I first heard because I’ve just seen so many leagues come and go, so many kind of half efforts at doing something” McGown said. “So I was like, oh OK, another pro league, we’ll see what happens. And then I got a call from Karch and he said, ‘Hey, these guys are the real deal and I’m on the board and I’m behind it and they need somebody with your skillset and you should listen to them.’”
McGown was further impressed in his interview with Patricof and Soros, and he officially signed on with AU as the Director of Sport for volleyball. From there he built a team of volleyball experts, staticians, and data analysts to create the league’s revolutionary individual scoring system alongside members of the AU team who had helped do the same thing for softball.
McGown’s team included Dr. Gil Fellingham, a statistician and professor at BYU who served as a volunteer assistant for the men’s team at BYU when McGown was the head coach; Joe Trinsey, the technical coordinator for the USA women; and Giuseppe Vinci, founder of VolleyMetrics (now Hudl). Over eight months, this all-star squad created the framework for a scoring system and a format that aligned with three core principles: simplicity, accuracy, and parity.
Here are the basics of that system, and then we’ll get more into the way it was developed. Athletes Unlimited Volleyball begins play February 27 in Dallas.
Players earn individual points throughout a match by performing skills. Positive actions, such as digs, assists, blocks, and kills add to a player’s individual points. Negative actions, such as shanking a pass or committing a ball-handling error or a hitting error subtract points from the player’s total. The table below shows the values the AU team ultimately decided on for each skill (after much research, simulation, and experimentation).
|Good Pass||+2||Block Error||0|
This system uses as its foundation a model developed by Joe Trinsey for the USA women’s national team. Trinsey’s model determined what percentage of every point won and every point lost could be attributed to each touch in a rally.
McGown’s team converted those percentages into integers — for example, if a service ace is worth 60 percent of a point (based on the assumption that the serving team wins the point 60 percent of the time), then the AU system took that percentage (0.6) and multiplied it by 10 to turn it into the integer 6. Well, and then actually they multiplied it by two again in order to eliminate half points that appeared in a few skill values. Hence the final determination that a service ace will be worth +12.
Those final skill values that you see in the table above don’t all reflect the “true value” of that skill as it would appear in Trinsey’s model, however. The reason for that is the third guiding principle I mentioned earlier. McGown and his team wanted the scoring system to be both simple and accurate, but they also wanted to create parity, or a realistic chance for any player, regardless of position, to earn a spot at the top of the leaderboard with an excellent performance, or series of excellent performances.
If you think about it for a minute you’ll understand why this presented a sizable challenge.
Setters touch the ball in almost every play and outside hitters and opposites earn entries on the stat sheet for digs, kills, serves, and blocks. Middles, on the other hand, typically only play in the front row before being replaced by the libero, and they only really hit and block, rarely digging or setting. Liberos, for their part, usually only dig and pass. The number of opportunities for middles and liberos to score individual points is simply much lower than for setters, outsides, and opposites.
After many tests and simulations, McGown’s team decided to tweak a few things: increase the value of digs, decrease the value of assists, and eliminate negative values for block errors and dig errors. Those final values are reflected in the table above.
“That was massively challenging because at some point as soon as you depart from a pure meritocracy, from just pure true value — this is what everybody adds from a numerical perspective, this is what they’re adding true value — as soon as you depart from an evaluation based on this true value, now there is some subjectivity that’s going to get introduced there, we’re going to have to make some accommodation,” McGown explained.
“So it’s balancing that subjectivity, what bias do we want to introduce, and we have to live with that bias and we have to live with that subjectivity. So that was the challenge, right? What subjectivity do we want to introduce and are these methods that we’re using to bring more equality into the system acceptable to the sport and do they stay true to the sport and do volleyball people feel good about it?”
McGown feels good about the level of parity they achieved with the final system. In fact, he said it was probably one of their greatest achievements in the entire project.
In the process of developing the individual scoring system and in talking with volleyball community members and fans since the system has been released, one thing that came up a few times was whether this kind of focus on individual actions would make the player obsess too much over their personal performance instead of just playing normally, and whether the negative points for errors would cause the athletes to play more conservatively.
“The way I’m talking to the players about it was, you know, really, at the end of the day, what this system does is it kind of shines a light on your choices and your actions and the outcomes of your play because this is how much, even under a normal volleyball context when you’re not scoring individual points, this is how much of that point you just cost your team,” McGown said. “And so the point system tried to reflect the value that each player adds by their touch on the ball or the value that they give away by making an error with their touch on the ball.
“Rather than thinking about it as this big penalty, I am telling them, you’re still losing this rally for your team with an error and this is the value that this costs us. It always existed in the background, but now we’re drawing a little more attention to it.”
In an attempt to capture the more intangible elements of an individual player’s impact on the result of a match, players can also earn points through being named one of the three MVPs of the match. First MVP gets 60 points, second MVP receives 40, and the third MVP walks away with a bonus of 20 points.
Finally, players accumulate win points, that is points awarded according to the outcome of each set and match. Each AU volleyball match will be composed of three sets to 25 points in order to standardize the length of the matches and thus provide mostly equal opportunities for players to accumulate individual points over the span of each week and the entire five-week season.
A set victory is worth 30 points for the players on that team, with the match-winners gaining 40 more each. But here’s where things are once again a bit different than normal: the team that accumulates the largest points total across all three sets wins the match — regardless of whether they won one, two, or three sets. Put another way, a team can win two sets and still lose the match.
If you want to get into the scoring system deeper than that, I encourage you to read the white paper authored by McGown and Trinsey, along with AU’s CTO John Spade and data analyst Soham Mahabaleshwarkar. For 23 pages of statistics, I actually found it to be a pretty interesting read, and I think my fellow volleyball nerds will largely agree. For a more condensed explanation, you can read through the “How We Play Volleyball” page on the AU website.
And that’s just the scoring!
The weekly draft makes up the other half of the AU league’s radically different format.
Since matches will be played on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of each week during the AU volleyball league, the draft takes place on Tuesdays. The top four individual performers from the previous weekend’s matches serve as captains, with the captains for the first week being determined through a series of scrimmages players will participate in during preseason training.
The draft will stream live on Facebook every week, with the players tuning in via Zoom and being pulled into a Zoom Room with their teammates once they get selected. In each round, a randomized order is determined for the captains to make their selections, and they must finish the draft with a team made up of three outside hitters, two opposites, three middles, two setters, and one libero.
The leagues four coaches — Jamie Morrison, Joe Trinsey, Tama Miyashiro, and Tayyiba Haneef-Park — will be randomly assigned to a team each week.
“There will be some strategy around how do we pick within those spots,” McGown said, “and then, you know if something gets taken in one of those spots, do we leave that position to the end of the draft? The constraints around the number of players that you can select in a position I think adds the other real element of interest to the draft and will require some strategy from the captains as they draft.”
In order to prepare the players for this strategic element, they’ll get a primer on drafting strategy during the preseason.
“Those early drafts are going to be fascinating,” McGown added. “Should be really interesting to see just the way those things go and then see how people learn from their mistakes or learn from their fortunate choices and go from there.”
For fans interested in what this is going to look like, you can watch all five weeks of drafts from the 2020 softball season on the Athletes Unlimited Facebook page.
So did you get all that? Because there will be a quiz.
For more on the upcoming Athletes Unlimited pro league, see our previous features on the league launch, the addition of Brazil’s Sheilla Castro, Puerto Rico’s Bethania De La Cruz, Iowa State’s Kaylee Manns, Husker Jordan Larson, and Texas’ Ebony Nwanebu.