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Billy Penn Illustration

Meet the Mt. Airy guy behind Baseball Reference, pro sports stats empire

Sean Forman’s been in the job for 16 years, helping lead a statistical revolution one WAR at a time.

As the world has become increasingly digital, and fewer and fewer salesmen traipse from door to door trying to sell monthly subscriptions to Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia — ‘you get A, B and C today and you’ll have Z by the end of next year!’ — the history of the world still needs recording. History can’t repeat itself, after all, if there was no one chronicling it the first time.

Now, sure, in today’s world it seems like every moment of the day is chronicled in some way, on some device, and uploaded to the cloud. But who is charged with making sense of all of that information and, more importantly, recording it in a way that will make sense to future generations? Google? Wikipedia? Snapchat?

For more than a decade and a half, for baseball writers and fans of America’s pastime, the answer has been Baseball Reference.

Created by a former St. Joe’s professor who started the stat-centric site 16 years ago, as he calls it, for fun, Baseball Reference has become a vital resource for everyone who covers the game, or simply loves its history.

Sean Forman, 44, is the man behind the site, and if you haven’t heard of him or his company Sports Reference before, you have undoubtedly, perhaps unwittingly, seen his work.

“I have to say I love it,” Forman told me over lunch last week, a few blocks past the Suburban Station stop he hit from his home in Mt. Airy. “I enjoy going to work every day and still write code. For me it’s really about the puzzle of figuring out what is the most useful way of presenting this information. Coming up with small touches that make things a lot easier for the user.”

Try this. I ask because I do it all the time. Think of your favorite player in sports, any sport, go to the league’s homepage, find the stats page and search for that player. Here, I’ll do it for you.

Now, after you look at your favorite player’s 2016 stats and career numbers, tell me what his ‘value’ numbers say. Tell me how many wins above replacement he had in 2011, and don’t just tell me when he was drafted, but in one click tell me who was taken before and after him in that round.

Did your favorite player ever win an MVP? Should he have? Tell me, on that league-run player page, who won the MVP the year your favorite finished sixth in the voting. Or tell me the year he led the league in runs scored.

What was his salary that year, and each year of his career?

Now, again in one click, tell me the same information about any one of his teammates from 2008. Now 2004. Now this year.

Now click this. You’re welcome. (And to Forman and his staff, thank you.)

Baseball Reference isn’t Forman’s only site. He launched the baseball platform in 2000, adding football — Pro Football Reference — the same year. Basketball Reference is actually the network’s second-most popular site behind baseball, with comparable traffic numbers in recent years as basketball fans and writers have shifted to a more analytical mindset (Trust the Process). The company also has robust historical data-driven sites for hockey, college football, college basketball and the Olympics as well, adding world football (read: soccer) next year.

“The league sites didn’t add historical stats up until the last four or five years,” Forman explained. “Originally we were an encyclopedia. We weren’t updating daily, we were updating at the end of the year. We didn’t add daily updates until around 2007 maybe. We were the source you would go to look up Mickey Mantle, not Ryan Howard’s current stats.”

For nearly a decade, they’ve been both. In some ways, they’re one of the only places you can not only find both, but compare today’s players to those in the history books.

Who is the best quarterback in Eagles history? It’s a debate we can have for hours, but it’s a debate we can have much easier, and smarter, with the players’ stats at our fingertips.

Let’s ask this: Which quarterback had the best first season with the Eagles? Donovan McNabb, Randall Cunningham, Nick Foles and Carson Wentz were all drafted by the team, but older players like Norm Van Broklin and Ron Jaworski had years elsewhere before coming to Philly. We want to see how each did in their first year in Philly.

This took 30 seconds, using Pro Football Reference’s Play Index. Maybe 45 seconds.

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Pro Football Reference

The rabbit holes you fall into are endless, even for people not crazy about analytics. Do you want to know every NBA player who shares your birthday? How about every baseball player who died on Halloween? Every hockey player named Gord?

“Putting myself in the user’s shoes and figuring out the best way to answer those questions,” Forman offered, “I just really enjoy it. It’s fun for me. It’s just how my brain works. I think about how this can be more convenient and how this can be more useful to people. It’s just how I think about things.”

It’s impossible to properly cover sports — or even be a well-versed sports fan today — without knowing your history. Everything is searchable and trackable and memorable now. But even with hundreds of years and tens of thousands of games worth of stats at our fingertips, how we interpret those numbers are still up for debate.

Forman and I spent much of our lunch discussing WAR — wins above replacement — and how ubiquitous the metric has become despite the fact his formula for WAR differs from the way another stat-centric site, Fangraphs, configures it. If a run is a run and a hit is a hit, why isn’t WAR the same as WAR? Or, for that matter, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP?

In short, there is no good answer, and I could see the frustration on Forman’s face when I brought it up, not for the question, but for the lack of a definitive answer across the industry. He admitted there’s probably a sense of pride — read: hubris — involved, in that none of the stat sites wants to acquiesce to the other’s model. He also noted that there is some discretion used with regard to the availability of older stats.

We don’t know how many times, for example, Mickey Mantle went from first to third on a single, or how where exactly Honus Wagner made his infield assists from. Forman called WAR a “framework”, offering that his model is more about historical comparisons, while sites like Fangraphs have set up their model more for future prognostications.

He did tout the other sites, as well as his own, with being a larger part of the mainstream prevalence of advanced metrics and analytics. “We’re not going back; they are here,” he stressed, using the example of fielding statistics being given to voters for the Gold Glove award, suggesting a player like Rays’ center fielder Kevin Kiermaier never would have won a Gold Glove before voters could use defensive stats to aid in their decisions.

This whole thing is admittedly pretty inside baseball, if you pardon the pun, but Forman stressed his network of sites aren’t just for wonky reporters working on deadlines looking for historical data on Chase Utley, Eagles quarterbacks or Gold Gloves.

“We have an extremely diverse group of people who are using the sites,” he assured me. “It’s not just media people who are on there, because we would be broke if that were the case.”

Forman said they get hundreds of thousands of people on the site each day, and over the years his business model has shifted to selling ads against those growing audience numbers. They do have a subscription service for more specific features, and have discussed taking more of the site behind a pay wall.

“Right now,” he said, “it’s about getting a big audience.”

“We’re small potatoes. If we were making 10 times what we make in revenue then maybe those big media companies would care. What we do is worth probably less than…” Forman said before stopping to think of an apt comparison. “ESPN probably has 50 broadcasters that make more a year than we make in revenue. Maybe not 50, but they probably have a dozen or two-dozen broadcasters making more than we make.

“It’s probably not a huge market, I would say. It’s a niche market where you can do well. I don’t know there’s a $50-million business doing sports stats.”

Selling ads is a traditional web-based revenue model, but it wasn’t Forman’s first. When he was doing the site part time — the site began as a hobby one year when his wife was teaching at Mercer University in Georgia — he employed the Wikipedia-esque model of asking users for money.

“When I started the site 16 years ago, that was the first revenue model we had. The site, I did it for fun. We ended up getting mentioned in Sports Illustrated and it crashed our servers, so I had to upgrade from like a $20 a month server to $150 a month server. And so, I put up a note like the NPR model. I’d get a check or a Paypal payment and I’d write them a postcard thanking them.”

They used that model for two or three years before shifting to creating sponsorships for player pages. Individual users, and random small sport-specific blogs, could own player pages, so anytime someone clicked on a guy’s stats, that page was sponsored by…whoever. (My great regret is never sponsoring the page for Phillies legend Steve Jeltz.)

“It was unique,” Forman admitted. “There was only one. We based the price on popularity of the page, and people wanted the popular pages, but the obscure ones were also available. There was kind of a scarcity thing to it. It worked out really well. For the first four or five years I was doing the site on the side, so it covered our expenses.”

When it got to the point that Alex Rodriguez’s page was going up for sponsorship at a rate of $2,500 a month, the ad-based model became more lucrative and sensible for those paying the sponsorships.

The site’s success has been its longevity, but also it’s high ranking in Google searches. Another test: Take your favorite player and type him into a search window, adding the word “Stats” after it.

Here. I’ll do that too. If the Sports Reference site isn’t the top entry, it’s one of the top few. That goes a long way to building a trusted — and trafficked — brand.

“Part of it is we are one of the oldest most established out there, so we just have more links to us than anyone else does,” Forman suggested. “Beyond that I like to think we are the most useful. Google – I don’t have any special insight into Google – it’s really a matter of I would like to think our quality has a big part to do with that.”

Forman employs a staff of seven, himself included, that consists of four developers, a user affairs manager and a social media manager. They are all sports people, not just data-driven math nerds, though there’s probably a bit of that, too. To show the group’s sports fandom, he admitted they purchased Sixers season tickets this year. I’m not sure if that helps or hurts their cause.

He admitted there had been interest from larger shops in acquiring his network, but for now he is happy on his own, running one of the most important-yet-unheralded resources in one of the biggest industries in the country, from his home office (office in a church two blocks from his house) in Northwest Philly.

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