Sports analytics is a rather broad term, but essentially it describes the use of performance data in decision making. It helps teams better scout talent and profile each player to accurately predict performance. This general term also applies to sports gambling and fantasy sports.
We spoke with Georgetown University’s Mike Fanning about his knowledge of sport analytics. “Years ago, sports analytics was considered a ‘leading edge’ skill,” he said. “Today, understanding of the value and proficiency in sports analytics is part of the necessary skill set for success in all aspects of the sports industry.”
Let’s take a deeper look into the world of sports analytics:
Michael Lewis’ best-selling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game made sports analytics popular when it came out in 2003. The Brad Pitt film adaption in 2011 reached an even wider audience, educating baseball fans and moviegoers alike on the value data has in baseball.
As Fanning said, it’s tough to imagine the world of baseball before the release of Moneyball. “The Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane risked his career by employing statistical analysis applied to baseball,” he said.
This style of analysis is called sabermetrics, and it was largely disregarded since Bill James introduced the term decades ago. That is, until Beane proved its effectiveness when he led the A’s to win the American League West in 2002.
This field of analysis continues to play a major role in baseball organizations. Jeff Passan’s book entitled The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports focuses on how MLB teams spend a lot of money on pitchers and the increasing rate of injuries to these stars, which directly impacts the team’s financial investments.
“Resourceful teams and analysts are finding new and valuable ways to assess performance data,” Fanning said. These sabermetricians collect and summarize relevant data from in-game activity to answer specific questions. Examples of measurements include batting average, on-base percentage, earned run averages, and fielding percentages.
But sports analytics goes far beyond America’s pastime — it impacts the entire industry.
Teams throughout the sports world mine performance data and use it to predict outcomes and make decisions. For example, basketball coaches look at shot charts. The NFL uses hit charts to help predict where the ball is headed by looking at a breakdown of the gap for each run play. They also use other tools, like formation reports, blitz reports, and down and distance reports.
“Sports analytics is a tool and a concept that is limited only by the ingenuity of the people who wish to use it,” Fanning said. “Two years ago Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller used their sabermetrics expertise to talk their way into serving as the general managers of an independent minor league baseball team – the Sonoma Stompers. Their basic idea – and the title of their best-selling book – is ‘the only rule is it has to work.’”
So what does the flexibility and potential of sport analytics mean to you as a job seeker? This explosion of data-driven models is opening a world of opportunity across the whole industry, as many organizations are hiring full-time data analysts.
“Sports analytics jobs are emerging every day in all sports and at all levels,” Fanning said. “Some jobs are obvious, such as working for teams, leagues and media outlets, but the reality is sports analytics is expected to grow.”
The projections are staggering. The Sports Analytics: Market Shares, Strategies, and Forecasts, Worldwide, 2015 to 2021 report found that the sport analytics market is anticipated to become a $4.7 billion industry within four years. Some universities and organizations are planning for this rapid growth. For example, Syracuse University is launching the first sports analytics degree in the U.S.
How to Start Your Career
Ready to start your new journey? Fanning suggested three places to start:
- Know the game thoroughly
- Understand the changing nature of the sports business
- Improve your programming skills
“It is a competitive field and the more skills you bring to the party, the better, especially in mathematics, statistics and data science,” he said. “Being proficient with Python and R programming languages will only help you succeed in sports analytics.”
Once you develop the technical skills, you also need to find other ways to set yourself apart. Fanning suggested a degree in sports management or data analytics. Pursue educational opportunities through reputable organizations like Sports Management Worldwide, which offers five different courses in sports analytics. You can already start applying to the new program at Syracuse University.
Finally, you need learn how you fit into the sports industry and how to demonstrate your value. Fanninged explained, “Showing what you can do – which often occurs in unpaid internships or independent research – also contributes to the ‘sweat equity’ portion of the equation for success in this field.”
He also emphasized the importance of soft skills, like listening skills, strong work ethic, and humility, as well as your ability to take prove your value when you get a shot.
“Remember you may have 15 seconds to impress a decisionmaker, who might be a scout who has worked in the trenches for 40 years and has little time for sabermetrics,” he said. “But every successful sports analytics person I know respects the wisdom of these ‘old school’ guardians of the sport and learns to speak their language.”
As you pursue your education, focus on developing important soft skills and being flexible in your working environment. This way, you can grow within the exciting world of sports analytics.
How are you preparing for your career in sports analytics?