Last Updated on May 23, 2022
Interview with Dr. Dan Larson
Sports Degrees Online recently spoke with Dr. Dan Larson about his academic and professional journey into Health and Exercise Science. Professor Larson also talks about Oklahoma University's Sports Data Analytics Master's program and the growing importance of data and analytics both in athletics and the sports industry at large. Finally, Dr. Larson shares some insights into where analytics related opportunities may be emerging in the coming decade.
About Dr. Dan Larson
Dr. Dan Larson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science (HES) at Oklahoma State University. Professor Larson holds a PhD from the University of Georgia, and his research interests include sports data analytics, economic theory and sport, and coaching and instruction, among others.
Sports Degrees Online: You have earned a PhD. in Sport Management Policy after earning a Master’s in Sport and Exercise Science. Can you share a bit about your academic journey and how you found your way to focusing on sports economics and finance?
Dr. Larson: My background has been in sports. I was an athlete when I was an undergraduate in college, and then I moved into coaching and then eventually management within the industry. From an academic perspective, my interest was in business, so I studied business, finance, and psychology as an undergraduate. I was just about a triple major at that point, but I ended up finishing with a management degree. I moved into my master’s program and was a little more interested in the coaching side, so I moved into exercise sport science. And both of these undergraduate and master’s were at the University of Florida. I was in the department in that master’s program, and the nice thing about the program is I was able to have an area of interest also within sport management, even though I took anatomy and physiology, and biomechanics and all that, all of these are core courses in kinesiology. At Florida, I also explored the management side. So that was part of the transition into the sports industry.
I spent a few years doing professional cycling team management. I managed a professional cycling team, traveled, and worked as a cycling coach, but then I decided I wanted to come back to my academic roots. I decided I wanted to be a student for life. I was drawn more toward marketing when I first came back, really I was thinking I would do marketing and sponsorship. When I came back for my doctoral program I quickly realized that what I was really interested in was economic theory, and the finance and economics in sport.
Most of my doctoral coursework was housed in the business school at the University of Georgia, even though I was in the kinesiology department in the Department of Education. Most of my formal training and my cohort of students that I progressed through the doctoral coursework with were in the Economics department. All of that tied back to studying finance and sport, even before thinking about studying public finance, or sport facilities and activities. But nevertheless, I do still have a keen interest in marketing and consumer behavior. In a way, my academic training has a broad swath from the athlete-performance side all the way over to business intelligence. But as far as my academic training and what my research areas are focused on, it has definitely been the business intelligence and business issues in sport.
Sports Degrees Online: You are one of the Expert Interview participants who has some experience in coaching. Can you talk about how that experience has fit into your professional journey?
Dr. Larson: I think it was more a natural progression of my involvement in the sport rather than my academic interests. I’m not even sure that there was a coaching degree option at the time, especially at the graduate level, so that’s really why I gravitated towards sport management. Even with the exercise physiology and sport psychology courses that I explored with my master’s program, the interest in them came from my time as a participant and my interest in progressing my career.
Thinking about how my experiences competing and preparing for competitions and training and advising other athletes naturally moved me to that coaching and managerial role, it wasn’t as much an academic program in coaching as it was a professional track that I was on. Ultimately, I decided that for me, in terms of the lifestyle of being on the road all the time, and catering to athlete whims and desires, it was more of a lifestyle change to get back to the academic world and be grounded in things I really cared about and what I was really interested in, and held a sincere curiosity for.
Being in a university setting gives me the freedom to explore things that are really interesting to me while I am not necessarily – for lack of a better term, cat-herding – athletes in a coaching and management role. The travel and the everyday parts of the job didn’t really fit, but I do still have a keen interest in understanding that arena and studying it. I do have research projects where we collect data related to coach and athlete performance. It’s nice to stay tied to it, and those industry connections are very useful to me in terms of places to collect data and study the sport and coaching and culture.
Sports Degrees Online: I could see how being in those shoes helps you solve problems and understand issues more than someone who has only seen it from an academic perspective. I respect that a lot. Next question for you – Oklahoma offers a sport business major for undergrads and at the Department of Health and Exercise Science you offer a master’s in sport analytics. Can you explain some of the strengths of those two programs?
Dr. Larson: It might be useful to talk about how the program originated. When I first came to the University of Oklahoma, they were just re-activating an undergraduate sport management degree at OU. There had been one previously housed in the Sport and Exercise Science Department, I think it was actually the Health and Sport Studies Department back then. They had made a transition and change in organization in the early 2000’s and they deactivated the program, so for several years OU didn’t have an undergraduate degree in sport management. In 2011-2012 we were able to reactive the undergrad program in the business school which I honestly feel is quite a bit better for a lot of reasons for careers for undergraduate students in sport management.
For one, it’s more housed in business so it gives them more of a hedge against not being able to get a devoted sport position, so they can work in other industries with those broader skills, and the the master’s degree really grew out of that. In those following years, but just as new, we decided to develop the health and exercise science the sport data analytics MS degree. It is the third area of interest in our program. We have historically just had health promotion and exercise physiology sides of our department and we kind of wedged in the sport analytics, arguing that it typically fits between the social science realm of the promotion of health behavior and the physical science realm of athletics and physiology. With our connections to the undergraduate program, I had already taught undergraduate courses for that program even though I was housed in the health and exercise science department so I taught several sports finance, and economics courses.
That put me in a good connection to tie our program to the business school. Getting to the strength- that synergy is very important. Having the undergraduate program there to foster and identify students that are going to fit the specific area of sport data analytics so that the econ course, and the data analytics course, and the finance course, really helps the faculty there to identify potential students who could go into analytics. We have had several students who have basically progressed out of their business schools MIT department, and the management division to move into the analytics field, and we have had really good success in terms of job placement with them.
So the synergy is important. In terms of the undergraduate program, like I said, being housed in the business school is a major strength and it’s great that the students are getting some of those fundamentals in there. It might seem a little strange with me coming from an exercise science and kinesiology background, but personally, I do think, especially if you are getting into the business of sport, having a business-housed program says a lot about what you can do, especially when you think about business intelligence and data analytics.
The other main strength of our undergraduate program is that they have done an incredible job of tying to industry in the area. Thinking about the professional sports team, not just the OU athletics program, which is a big component, but also the professional teams in Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Dallas; they have done a great job incorporating practitioner instructors, basically having industry professionals participating and teaching, and co-teaching some of the courses in the department. Not only are they connected in terms of identifying internships and industry experience, but they also have industry experience in the classroom, and they are really involved in the student’s development. At the undergraduate level, that is the main strength there.
In terms of the grad program, I would say that the biggest strength we have is that we are able to focus specifically on sport data science across all of the data that any sport organization might be dealing with. So that’s athlete analytics and business intelligence, even though that sounds a little bit broad, it is very focused on data science and not necessarily traditional sport management. That’s one of the main things I do when I interview students who are interested in our master’s program. I am clear that this is not a sport management master’s degree. This is technically specific to statistics and data science and analytics. It is important that they either have some kind of work experience already, or an undergraduate degree that rounds out the sport management knowledge base, but if they are looking for a sport management degree, this isn’t it. But I do view that as a strength that we focus directly on those unique skills. Again, having ties to businesses is a strength, and [we are proud to offer] that full spectrum of data analytics from business intelligence all the way over to athlete analytics.
I always tell prospective students that those are all a continuum. And the cross-over between athlete analytics and consumer analytics is the labor market. That labor market interaction and the core of my main research area is the economic theory and the understanding between the supply and demand relationship. That is the strength, that it is very focused. Quality over quantity. We are not trying to blow out the program and get as many students as possible to get in here. It’s definitely the quality over quantity philosophy in admissions.
Students come in and are very individually advised relative to their career goals of where they are and where they want to be. This isn’t a sport management degree, but it is a path to enhance what you are doing. You have to have a clear vision of where you want to be at the end of this master’s program. Is it going to be as a sport analyst? [If so,] in what type of area? Is it going to be moving on to doctoral work? They could transfer back into doctoral work and sport management and have this incredibly useful toolkit of data science and statistics. And we have had students do that as well. More often than not, they move into industry as an analyst position.
Sports Degrees Online: Can you talk a little about how analytics is changing the business side of sports?
Dr. Larson: I have this discussion with people often that from the business intelligence side, the data analytics side of that has a long history of development. It just wasn’t called sport data analytics previously – It was called marketing. Thinking about consumer science, marketing, and understanding your consumer, and all of that data analysis and all of those things have been going on for a long time on the marketing side. It is now just sort of lumped into this bucket of sport data analytics which moves it into the realm of data science.
But having said that, even though we have a long history of quantitative data analysis in marketing and consumer behavior, there are new elements of the industry that are making it that much more important. We are collecting much more thorough and robust data on consumers and have a lot more to draw from in terms of information about their behaviors.
Tracking individually linked tickets [is a perfect example]. In the old days, it was just a paper ticket and whoever happens to bring that paper ticket is watching the game, whereas now we can track things through all these different data streams. This has obviously added complexity and really added potential value to the data analytics process. But also, the proliferation of different media outlets and streams and consumption methods that consumers are using to experience sports and the fragmenting of the sports market into all these different opportunities makes it that much more challenging, but again opens up a lot of doors in terms of the information you can gather from those streams.
As I said, marketing and consumer science have been quantitative data analysis for a long time, but in terms of data analytics and moving towards that, it does make sense that there are even more problems and opportunities to use it going forward. That’s the business side.
On the athlete analytics side, it’s definitely newer in terms of adoption and opportunity in the same way that we have new data streams and new information. On the business side – related to athlete analytics – there is also new technology related to athlete tracking and monitoring physical training loads, and not just in-game sport performance. There is a build-out of collecting high-resolution data being collected related to what’s happening on the field and in competitions, but also there is the training and performance side, where we look at what the physical body can take, what load the athletes are under, understanding the data related to injury prevention and the likelihood of having incidents that could be very consequential to the whole process. That has generated and continues to increase the amount of data that is generated related to that. So there are mountains of data that organizations now have and can generate related to training, performance, and on-the-field competition performance.
But it’s unique people that can digest all of this. Eating a mountain of data is like drinking out of a fire hose. So we can think about how we might translate what we get into something that is useful for coaches and decision-makers. That is probably the biggest area of growth is on the athlete analytics side. And it is contingent upon buy-in, but there is an increasing openness to data-driven decisions. Particularly if you are thinking about athlete training and injury prevention. Coaches are definitely open to using that sort of information and science on the injury prevention side of things rather than in-game decisions. In-game decisions are always a tough nut to crack in terms of getting buy-in and getting coaches and managers to use data-driven decisions.
That is much of our program, which is devoted not necessarily to be the highest-level quants. It’s not so much the level of analysis as it is being able to communicate and deliver your findings and recommendations to decision-makers. A lot of our program is doing that, getting practice identifying a problem clearly with a practitioner, understanding what they will use it for and what they need, and really taking the data science and statistics and making it something digestible. There’s always the joke about when you are an analyst and you are presenting something you show “big bar” and “little bar”, and you should do big bar. But in a way, it is a truism. It has to be actionable intelligence, and you need to have the ability to communicate [things simply] – this is what’s here, and this is the recommendation.
They do not want to hear your R², they want to hear in a clear way what they need to make decisions. I know I’m extending the answer quite a bit there, but I’m just thinking about how important it is and what value there is, and how you are more of a translator, and translating that mountain of data into something useful for practitioners.
Sports Degrees Online: That makes a lot of sense. And now specific to the sport science side of things, where do you see the job opportunities for graduates who are specializing in that area. Are they consultants, are they working for professional teams, are there working for some sort of performance sports office? Are they working out of a place like that where they work on specific projects for certain teams and athletes? Can you just talk a little bit about what that job market looks like and who the potential employers are?
Dr. Larson: There’s increasingly a number of positions and opportunities that are specifically named “Sport Performance Specialist” or “Head of Sport Performance” or “Sport Scientist” or “Head Sport Scientist.” It is all about capitalizing on the data that is being generated by all these technologies that teams are activating. When they are doing all the GPS monitoring and tracking both in training and in games, they basically need to leverage that capability. They are getting more and more performance science-based positions in sport organizations. One of our recent graduates just took a position like that with the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL team there. He is basically going directly into a sport scientist position and so it is tightly related to the athlete training so thinking about strength and conditioning specialists and people that are working in not the athletic training realm necessarily, but also the physical training side of things. So optimizing what that physical training looks like and understanding how it fits within a sports season and how it could strategically be impactful for the team performance has been a big push. It has been expanding, and those positions are appearing more and more across all professional sports. Some had these positions more developed already, but I think that we are moving more towards leveraging data science.
If someone is going out with exercise physiology sport performance professionals, it’s only going to be enhancing their value within the industry. All exercise and sport science professionals are dealing with data on a day-to-day basis, but being able to do more with it and extract more value from the process is what has opened up with specific training in data analytics.
Sports Degrees Online: Looking specifically at sport management, there are so many programs out there, really hundreds of programs, what factors should students be considering as they are trying to choose a sport management program.
Dr. Larson: When we created this program, one of the things we wanted to think about was job placement and being able to actually have some of the valuable experience in the end. I think that is an issue with sport management education overall, is having these programs being a little overbuilt, and everyone and their brother has a program. It makes sense to think “Ok, there is a proliferation of programs, how do I pick the ones that is the most valuable.” And it’s not to say that most programs aren’t going to give you some of the core set of skills and knowledge in the area, but if they are looking at factors that differentiate programs, being able to have work experiences built into the process. Having industry experience at whatever level it might be is critical, having a program that has good connections to wherever the students want to end up being. So if a student wants to work in Olympic sports or collegiate sports, or professional sports, thinking about how well that program is tied to the industry in that way would be the biggest differentiation.
As far as the curriculum and coursework and content, that is pretty standardized, and most programs will get you good coverage across that. So really, it’s those outside factors. Thinking about how you can look and see what kind of placements they are experiencing and are students getting the jobs that they would hope to get. And obviously, some of that depends on the students that are coming through the program, but whether or not they have success with that. In terms of thinking about the future, past undergraduate program, it is about what next steps, is it going into the industry, is it moving on to graduate-level work?
For someone interested in getting involved in sport analytics for example, there are tracks. OU has multiple tracks in the undergraduate sport management degree that give a little more treatment to different areas whether it be marketing or analytics, or other sub-tracks that give you specific knowledge. Having a little bit of foundation and involvement in things like applied statistics and data science at the undergraduate level would feed well into our program at a master’s level. But a student should really be thinking about “what is my end goal?” That comes really from my coaching background – think about your long-term end goal and work backward from there. Think about the steps that you need to take. That’s a standard coaching, goal-setting process. Eventually, you step back to today and figure out what you need to do today.
In doing that you need to identify you need to see that this program is going to feed into your aspirational outcome. The subtle differences between the programs might sway you one way or the other. If they really want to go into community relations in sport, or communications, marketing, or finance – different programs are doing to have slightly different stripes in each of them.
I would even recommend that undergraduate students have the ability to look and see who the faculty are and who is serving the program. They can see whether or not they are practitioners or researchers in an area they really care about. I know that’s always tough because you get to a program and you see how engaging those professors are, but on the front end, digging into the programs, because they all are generally the same in terms of their course work and structure, but there are subtle differences that can match up to different aspirations.
Sports Degrees Online: Imagine that there is a freshman or sophomore in the sport management program, they have a good internship lined up, they have chosen their focus area, whether it be marketing or analytics, and they are trying to build a background, and so from the academic side of things they are on track, what are some of the things they can be doing outside of the proper program structure that they can be doing to set themselves up for success in five years?
Dr. Larson: If we are thinking in the sport data analytics realm, what they can do if they are thinking about the business intelligence side, just getting some credibility of being involved. So getting some internship or job opportunity would be key, short of that, there is also volunteering, having extra hours involved, and gaining familiarity with the industry.
In terms of the athlete analytics side, the business intelligence is a little more straightforward, there is course work and basic work experience, just to have your path to get into the industry. You don’t even necessarily need data analytics work experience to have credibility in working in the sports industry, it could be marketing or promotions, or other areas. On the athlete analytics side, it takes a little more investment and time to develop your career.
We always say when a student is an undergraduate and they are in sport science and they want to work with athletes, the more time you can embed yourself in those experiences, the better. That can be volunteer hours with a college sports team, a professional sports team, a minor league sports team, or whatever. Getting those hours in, and getting that face time and developing a career is much more important. Sometimes, the athletes participating in the sport have a leg up in that way because they are embedded in it every day. So they can see and observe and have the credibility of being in that area in the front end. If you are not an athlete it is very important to be embedded in an organization and get a reputation of having a good work ethic, and having that credibility in the industry so that when you seek a master’s program in analytics, it is more about professional development, and you adding tools to your toolkit rather than just trying to get accreditation that makes you eligible for a job.
I mentioned that the athletes that we have gone through our program and end up in that athlete analytics and sport performance side, throughout their undergraduate and master’s programs, they are serving as training assistants or graduate assistants in athletics, and their career is already developing through every day activities. So the program is enhancing what they are doing, it’s not like they have a key to unlock it. They have to be developing it on their own. Like I said quality over quantity. For athlete analytics students, it’s critical that this is really what they want to be doing, but they have evidence that this is the track that they are already on and that they have a high chance of success. There is no way, just because of how the industry is structured and how people progress through those careers, just having a degree is not going to unlock the door. It is a little more critical on the athlete performance side.
On the business intelligence side, you are developing a set of skills that has a broad range of applications and can be used and demonstrated and a little bit of work experience is all it takes. On the athlete side, part of that is the “good old boys” network. I say “good old boys”, but really just being in the “in-group” of teams and organizations, and having them know you and understand you. And although I say “good old boys” network, we pride ourselves on the diversity of students that come through. Some of our very best analysts that come through the program are female and international students that have come through management and information technology programs. Of those, we boast about our three best placements, where we have female data analysts working at the Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they all just recently got their placements there. And they are doing data analytics in the business intelligence realm, and we are happy to have that.
I would say that the impetus on the athlete analytics side is on career building, while on the business intelligence side it is more academically oriented.
Sports Degrees Online: Generally, it sounds like it is much more straightforward on the business side of things. What would you say for every ten jobs out there in the analytics realm, how many of those are on the business side and how many of those are in other areas (on-field or sport science)?
Dr. Larson: Answering that question is a little bit of a stab in the dark, but my sense is that the opportunities are much over-weighted by business intelligence. That’s the core of the business, their revenue-generating proposition and understanding of the consumers, and like I said it has been a lot more developed over time with the general business and marketing operations. As a proposition, maybe it’s ¾ business intelligence and ¼ sport performance? It might even be less than that, it might be more like 9:1. I haven’t analyzed the data, but it is clear that the sport performance opportunities are fewer and farther between. And that again feeds into the requirement that if we are taking on athlete analytics students, there has to be a much stronger case that it will pan out well and give the students what they want in the end in terms of their placements. It’s key on the athlete performance side, it is almost a requirement they are involved in a graduate assistantship with the Oklahoma University Athletics Program, but there are also job opportunities with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dodgers, but in terms of athlete analytics, they need to be making the case to us that they belong in that program.
The business intelligence side, because there are so many opportunities, it’s a little less tenuous, but we still do screen for career trajectory and quality of students. We have a little bit of luxury to be able to screen for career trajectory and what students are doing, and I don’t want to say it’s cheating on the front end, but you know, in admissions we are able to see the success of our placements in the end.
In our first four years, we were seeing a lot of success because of that because we can identify students who, for lack of a better term, the students really have their shit together and they are able to progress and add to their package of their capabilities. Definitely a rambling answer, but over-weighted towards business intelligence, but it is definitely growing in the sport performance. And once it’s fully built out on the sport science side and the athlete analytics side, that’s hard to say. I still think it will be dominated by the business intelligence positions, but I can see it growing in terms of opportunities on the sport side.
Sports Degrees Online: I appreciate that answer. I really like how you guys are so intentional and careful about this. Just because someone wants to sign up for a degree, you guys really make sure they understand where they are going and they understand where they want to be at the end of the program. I respect all that and it sounds like you are doing a great job. Professor, my last question for you- I just wonder if you have any books, podcasts, any other materials that you recommend for students who are trying to stay ahead of the curve in the sports industry.
Dr. Larson: You know, from an undergraduate perspective like getting their footing in the industry overall, I always incorporate the sports business journal just to have a feeling for what’s happening industry and how things are reporting and moving in terms of the analytics. For the graduate students, I always point to them, point them to the archives of the M.I.T. Sloan conferences. I mean because that’s gonna be the state of the industry materials represented there, while I do caution them and say that, everything that you see at Sloan doesn’t mean that you have to be able to perform at that level.
So it’s not everybody that is going to be doing machine learning and artificial intelligence and in sport data analytics and sort of the way that the industry’s needs are. These days, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for analysts that aren’t your super quants. And even if you do you have a quantitative analysis at a super high level coming out of Harvard or whatever, those folks are not necessarily always the best at communicating information.
So having that intermediary being an analyst that basically is a communicator and can and can drive change in the organization through that is a role that’s necessary. So I tell them to, you know, explore what’s out there and sort of understand which direction they might want to go and what’s happening in the Industry, particularly thinking about Sloan is great for seeing new technologies, but even in athlete tracking and monitoring and understanding what kind of hardware and capabilities are out there, that’s a great place to go. Those are kind of the big recommendations that I offer.
Otherwise, I always point students to read the academic literature on their specific area of topics. So reading the sports analytics journals, the international journal sports finance, or the journal of sport economics. And just to see sort of what the academic side of things is doing. That stuff’s a little bit more difficult to recommend because it’s not as updated. I mean, it’s often a little more dated. It often just boils down to delays in what’s coming out there in terms of the academic publication process.
And so the conferences are always good, so even smaller sports analytics conferences are where they can get a little bit more one-on-one conversation with presenters and other researchers. I think it is very engaging and I know sometimes it’s expensive for students, but I think that it’s worth it. I mentioned some of our best placements thus in the industry, and each of them were very active at getting out to professional and industry conferences, as well as academic conferences to kind of get their face out there.
Those are the big things that I recommend.