Last Updated on August 14, 2022
Interview with Professor Rodney Paul
Sports Degrees Online had the chance to interview Professor Rodney Paul about Syracuse University's Sports Analytics Program, which was the first such bachelor's program in the country. They touch on subjects including how the program was established, sports analytics clubs at Syracuse, the future of sports analytics, and the versatility of these skill sets.
About Professor Rodney Paul
Professor Rodney Paul is a Professor os Sport Management and the Director of the Sport Analytics Program at Syracuse University. Professor Paul is the founding advisor of the Sabermetrics Club at Syracuse and has been featured on a number of national media outlets including Forbes.com, NPR, and CFO Magazine, and he has consulted for major leagues leagues and teams throughout his career.
Professor Paul, can you just tell us a bit about your academic and professional journey and how you found your way to where you are today?
I’ve always been interested in sports, and I played baseball and basketball and hockey and a variety of different things growing up. I had a chance to play basketball at D III level and played for different teams in high school and things like that. So it’s always been a part of my life. In undergrad I started off in Actuarial Science and wound up going to just math. I didn’t enjoy Actuarial Science and so I went math and I wound up taking some economics classes, and I really enjoyed that. So I got a double major in math and economics mainly because I found that economics was a nice outlet for the math that I liked to do.
And that led me to grad school at Clemson, and down there, thankfully, there were a lot of people that were on the forefront of using sports as research in terms of the economic field. People had conversations on Friday afternoons after seminars which all tended to revolve around sports, where obviously college football is huge. It really piqued my interest from there so I got my PhD and spent some time there and later in Montana. .
During that time, I had some availability to be able to go to different places and I traveled a lot to see different sporting events around the country. I spent time going down to Vegas flying back and forth being able to learn about that market and things like that. I never really thought about working necessarily on the sports side because it didn’t really seem to be something that was happening. I wound up getting some articles published when I was just starting. I just happened to hit upon the wave of when sports economics really arose. I like to think I played a little bit of a part in pushing that, but I really kind of rode the wave with other people that were doing that, and it became a field within economics.
After I graduated I did not have a whole lot of opportunities in the sports side of the industry but I continued to be able to do my research at that point. About a decade later, I got the opportunity to interview at Syracuse in the Sports Management Department and wound up getting the job. From there, I started to attract a lot of the students that were more mathematically inclined in terms of sports management. I wound up being able to oversee their honors theses, and I think that drew a lot of interest within the nexus of sports management, different mathematics and analytics and things like that. I also started a Sabermetrics Club, and some of the Saber Club projects we did started to get some attention. There seemed to be a lot of students interested in what we were doing, and it started to grow. We had started just a little Saber Club and before you know it there wound up being 75, 80, 100 people on a Wednesday night just being able to sit around and talk about baseball and statistics and things like that. That grew into other sports et cetera and this is all before we had the program.
It kind of really took off from there. I love sports. I never thought I’d have a chance to be able to do that. It wasn’t really planned. It fell into place along different fronts.
I understand that Syracuse was the first university in the country to offer Sports Analytics as a major. As the director of the program this couldn’t have been a light decision by the university to commit to offering this program. Tell me, what does it mean for you to be a part of something that’s first in the country?
It’s really interesting. Obviously, it was scary in different ways and worrisome in terms of what would happen with this and how it could be used and what it would eventually evolve into. But it’s exciting on a lot of different fronts. Michael Veley, the head of the Sport Management Department at Syracuse takes students to L.A. each spring on an immersion trip. As part of that trip, he always received feedback as to what’s next and what people were talking about with technology and analytics. That kind of kept coming back and then when we kind of had the students that were interested in that, I was able to work with them which also helped to kind of also built it up.
I knew from doing a little bit of research into it, that there weren’t that many of those positions Sport Analytics jobs with teams out there. And then as I started to think more about it, I kind of came up with the idea that there should be more than one track that we could focus on. Not just on the player/team side, the Moneyball-esque side, but also on the business side. That opens up a lot more possibilities. Not only do you have the business side, but also other departments of the team and the leagues and things like that. Whether it’s advertising, marketing, sponsorships, etc. – any department where data-driven decision making is happening. Being able to simultaneously focus on both the player/team side and the business side, I thought, “Okay that is something that we could work with.”
Would you say the sports analytics program at Syracuse, would you say it has a strong business foundation or a strong economic foundation? How would you describe the actual breakdown of that program?
Yea, I think definitely in terms of that although there’s three of us faculty members that are economists. In terms of the economic side we do a lot of that internally within our courses, and we also have a lot of courses that they take in the Economics department at Syracuse. We try to get them up through game theory because game theory is so important to so many different things that are done in sports.
In addition to that, they get courses in accounting, and finance, and management, and marketing, etc. from outside of the sports discipline. And also they get some courses within our own program there. So that’s kind of the mix I guess in terms of the business side.
We make everybody take as high a level of calculus as possible, highest level statistics, linear algebra, et cetera. So they are very, very highly mathematical in terms of what they do, both the students that we bring in and the courses that they need to take. Some of the standardized test scores that we are able to attract to the program, they are just tremendous on that front.
And then the second side is the computer side, which is mainly coding. So we incorporate a lot of coding with both Python and R skills and SQL analysis.
And the third part is the business aspect, which includes communication and visualization courses. We also make them take a foreign language to try to separate themselves from other people that might have similar skill sets that they also have the ability to speak a foreign language. We try to encourage students to think about that strategically. So someone that wants to work in soccer might take Portuguese, for example.
In-house, we have courses that deal with modeling. Anything from linear regression to machine learning.
Finally, we also have the programming side which is specific to sports, and everything leads to a thesis. So at the end of their experience in their senior year they have to do their own project, their own thesis, and that can be on any of the sports of their choice or comparing and contrasting sports. We don’t have courses on baseball analytics or football analytics. We do examples from across the sports.
So we have the students in their clubs, we have student-run clubs, that basically occur every night of the week, and in there they’re expected to do group research. We encourage them and be able to try and help finance them to attend conferences using endowment gifts that we’ve gotten for the program
The students are able to work on their research skills in groups, and then by the time they’re a senior they can do their own research in terms of the thesis. So that’s the structure of the program that we have that we think is very different than any others out there. It combines a variety of different skills that you might only get otherwise if you triple-majored.
Many other universities out there offer sports analytics as master’s degrees or master’s certificates. Can you talk about the advantages of studying sports analytics at a bachelor level?
Our best asset is our students. It’s a matter of being able to be around the other students in the program that share the same passion that you do for 4 years or if you are able to come in with the credits like I mentioned before in three years, I think that’s where the huge advantage is.
You get to be able to spend that time with other people that have the same interests and things like that. It’s such a pleasure to see that students are able to come to our information sessions or be able to be there and meet with other students. The number of times I hear, “I finally found my home.” These are students that are probably in their high school talking to nobody else or one other person on the level that they are talking about with their intense interest in sports statistics. Now they find a room full of people that want to go ahead and have those conversations.
I think it’s that they learn from each other. They push each other. In so many ways it’s like a team. It’s cliche because we’re all in sports and deal with that. But competition is something that’s good. Good healthy competition with each other that when one club, for instance, winds up getting something accepted or gets invited to a conference to give a presentation, it spurs the other clubs on. They support each other and are able to help each other pass along different things that they learn in, whether it’s an internship or something. Or, “Hey, I found this neat code I’m using on Python to do this that I didn’t know about before.” They share that with each other and those types of things. So I think the best part is you’re surrounded by those and to be able to have the experience in the clubs.
We have every night of the week anything from any sport that you can imagine, but then we also have a fantasy sports club. We have a women in sport analytics club, et cetera. They all get guest speakers to be able to come in. They all work on projects, et cetera. That is something that they look forward to each week to be able to do that. Some of the students wind up doing that each night of the week that have these different meetings and get involved in many of the different clubs. So I think that’s part of it.
The other part is that I think you can build up more of the skills. Some of the master’s programs I’ve seen out there focus a little less on the math skills than we do. To me, the idea is that being able to do the calculus, being able to understand the math, helps you be able to model, helps to be able to understand what you’re doing. Being able to understand the math and being able to work things out, work a model in the opposite direction on your own and see how close you can get to be to what’s happening in terms of some machine learning approach, how to be able to compare and contrast. I think those things are huge.
It’s one thing to be able to be out there and be great at visualization and be able to tell stories based upon that, that’s extremely important. But I think if you want to be the ones that are doing the modeling, it is extremely important to have that really intense math background that our students are getting. We could do more in the three or four years to be able to expose them to a lot of things on the business side and the math side that maybe you wouldn’t get in terms of just jumping into the math program, jumping into the sport analytics program from some single background. But maybe if you already are a coder or something like that, then you have those skills to be jumped in, et cetera. But we’re trying to be able to get those across-the-board skills that we think are going to be important, no matter which way the industry goes.
I want to ask another question about the clubs at Syracuse because it does sound like that’s a huge draw. Is that entirely extra-curricular? I know you said that they can get proposals accepted at different schools. Are they getting credit for anything they’re doing or this is purely just passion?
No this is purely their passion for what they’re doing, supplemented by the idea that we have tried to pass along to them that if you are able to submit your work on a project and you get a chance to present it at a conference somewhere, Syracuse University is going to be able to finance it. We’ve had a variety of gifts to the program. The biggest is by Andrew Berlin who’s part owner of the Chicago Cubs. He gave us a million dollar gift. We use that to get students to competitions, to get them to conferences, and to try to get their work out there.
We have students who have published papers. We have students that have gotten exposure at MIT Sloan, Carnegie Mellon, and a variety of other sports analytics conferences. Those conferences are huge because it gets their name out there and they get exposed to people that might be hiring in the industry. The students just learn so much from being at those events.
We can do some things in house, obviously, but we’re limited by our experiences and whichever sports our faculty have worked on. I’ve not done much work on soccer, for instance, but you get out there somewhere else and, “Boom!” you get surrounded by people who are doing a ton of analytics research in soccer and you get to be exposed to that. And then you can bring that back and other people learn from it and how to apply it to hockey or some other sports. Those things are huge.
A lot of it is driven by their passion, their love to be out there talking about these things. The meetings are partially This Week in Baseball – where the president of the club gets up there and starts talking about what happened this week – and then it veers off into mini-research presentations. They will often do a team overview where they’ll give recommendations for roster weak spots, contracts that are coming up, or value opportunities. Some do stats and they’ll give a presentation. And then they discuss what research projects they would like to do.
They figure out how to scrape the data, how to use the data, and what type of visualization they might be able to show this relationship better than another. It works along those lines. So it’s partially something that is just about baseball that baseball fans can enjoy, and then it gets more into the nitty gritty. People that may not be Saber-heads eventually start to see, “Oh here’s where this is useful.” We get people that are not necessarily analytically inclined to be interested because they get something out of it too that they love. Now they have another rationale as to why ‘Player X’ is better than ‘Player Y’ because of this new analytical technique.
In sport management, there’s a lot of dialogue out there about the importance of internships and the importance of getting hands-on experience in your field of interest in different settings. Would you say that those types of internship experiences are also an important part of a sport analytics education, or does participation in analytics clubs like you previously mentioned serve that purpose?
I think in an ideal world, if it was possible for all students to do an internship between their junior and senior year, that would be something that would be immensely valuable. Because you’re learning from the people that are actually doing the work on a day-by-day basis, not just second-hand news or teaching the theory behind things. We obviously encourage that.
Our sports management program has a Capstone project where the students work on a project off campus, but we couldn’t be sure that there would be enough internship positions for our sports analytics students to go. I thought the best way to design the Capstone project to maximize their chances of success after graduation would be to show off their research. Their thesis says, ‘This is what I can do’.
This is not just about the end product, but about the students being able to show and discuss how and why they did what they did. The Capstone project is a chance for them to show off their skills with being able to do modeling and visualization of data, or being able to compare and contrast the work they did in R versus Python coding programs. It gives them something to be able to talk about during a job interview.
We just graduated our first full class in May, so we haven’t had all that many students come through the program yet. We definitely encourage students doing internships, and we try to pass along anything we see that’s out there to the students as soon as possible. Students share with each other, too, because they’re always searching for which internships might be out there for them to gain experience.
We also work with different companies in class or outside of class to take on some projects so they can gain experience there as well. We seek out any projects from the business side including looking at pricing, or analyzing social media activity. For example, we can set up a project where students are analyzing word usage used in posts or tweets to see which words are picking up the most attention based upon the sport of choice. It spreads them out on a variety of different things they can do. We welcome that, and we hope that this type of project will prove to be something that’s a win-win for both the companies that we partner with and our students.
We know that analytics is a growing field. Do you think there are going to be many more career opportunities in sports and business analytics in the near future? Or could it be a case where the field is growing, but job opportunities might be limited?
I obviously don’t know exactly how it’s going to grow, but I think it will grow. That’s why our program at Syracuse focuses on building the skill set as opposed to placing too much emphasis on something that we think the future is going to bring. The math skills and the coding skills, those are universally useful regardless of how the industry evolves. They’re going to be able to utilize that in addition to all the knowledge they pick up about sports.
I would’ve loved to see what the world would look like without the pandemic, that’s obviously thrown a wrinkle into everything, but the sports industry was hit pretty hard. I think the biggest challenge right now with the downsizing that places did is that people with experience or people with advanced degrees – not just master’s, but people with PhDs – in different disciplines that are out there looking to get into the field. So we have graduating students directly competing with PhDs for open positions.
My hope is that we get a college explosion like we did at the pro level where programs start to take on bigger and bigger analytics departments on the player evaluation side. I think we’d be well-positioned to take advantage of something like that. On the business side – either the positions that overlap with sports or are separate from sports – that sports business analytics is definitely growing. It’s something we see more and more of as more places need more people that are understanding of the numbers.
We’ve had sports analytics graduates that started in sports and left for greener pastures in other fields because other jobs are paying a lot more than the sports jobs are. We believe these skills transfer well across different disciplines.
I am optimistic that we will come out of the pandemic strong and these analytics departments start to grow. There are a lot of analytics departments on the player side that are really small even on the big dollar teams that are out there. We hope that they grow and that there will be positions out there. But like I said, maybe this will grow to the college level in the US and expand more internationally. We feel that our graduates will be well-positioned on that front.
How do you think this world of sports analytics could change in five to ten years?
I think the data is going to change. We are getting better and better data.
We are getting better technology that is being able to capture things that we never would have thought about – things that we just dreamt about before. So being able to apply the concepts that we have now to finer data or more detailed data. Being able to utilize that is extremely important.
We get to the point where there is so much data that you want to be able to filter it to what’s meaningful and what’s not. I laugh about this. I’m 51 years old – when I graduated, there was a shortage of data and it was very tough to get data. Sometimes doing research, I slaved over getting data for weeks and months even years! trying to get this data into place. Now someone with scraping code can get it within a few minutes. It’s just incredible what technology can do.
We’ve reached a point where there’s almost too much data. It gets to be overloaded on people and they can’t dissect what’s important and what’s not, what things are related to each other, etc. This is going to be important. You’re going to have so much to filter through. People that understand the underlying relationships are going to be able to find those things easier than other people. That’s a part of how it’s going to change.
More and more traditional areas in business have moves toward data-driven decision making, and visualization helps people understand what the analytics are saying without having to get the underlying mathematics. That’s why we work with our sports analytics students on the communications side, too. They’re going to be dealing with all kinds of audiences out there.
It’s one thing to have a discussion with people at MIT Sloan’s Analytics Conference – it’s another to be able to have the conversation with the Assistant GM who might be an ex-player who never studied these things. In these situations how do you get your point across to show that this is something they should consider and something they should use? As more and more people with analytics backgrounds get hired into front office positions, it tends to lead to another wave of these skills being needed at a variety of different places outside of sports.
Professor Paul, are there any books, podcasts, other resources, anything that you would suggest to the next generation of sports analytics experts so they can stay up on the latest in the field?
The nice part is there’s so many things out there now. There’s so many great sites. If you just search analytics with your sport of choice, you’re going to find different things and stuff that you’ll like. I’m a hockey guy, so I love the Natural Stat Trick website, for example. These sport-specific sites have the glossary to be able to learn about what the different abbreviations are to be able to compare and contrast different players. The websites are so tremendous where you can pick two players to compare, and it will give you the charts and things like that which is beautiful.
I would also recommend reading Moneyball. It’s great to be able to watch the movie, but when you watch the movie it may be a little bit different from what the book is actually about. The movie is a little bit more about the heartstrings of the story. Some of the individual conversations that are in the book are something that people will not grow tired of over time. Agree with it or not in terms of the different studies they do, it’s thinking, comparing, and contrasting what the scouts were saying and what the analytics were saying. The mix that comes together is nice. Analyzing Baseball Data with R is a book that we’ve used from the start. It’s something that’s really, really nice.
I’ve tried to do a couple of books with junior high students or people in high school to try and get them excited about the different math disciplines and how you can be able to apply that to sports. We’re living in a world where it’s nothing I would have ever dreamed of. Thinking back to when I was young – growing up on the East coast – I used to wish I could watch some west coast games. Now, not only am I able to watch them, but I can watch them on demand.
It’s pretty amazing the world that we live in. It creates overload, but it also creates a lot of opportunities. I think being able to pursue whatever angle that the person is passionate about the sport, they’ll find analytics that relate to it. You’ll find things that people might have done about training or things that are external like diet or something like that.
It’s interesting to some people and other people would just love to get as deep into the weeds of the different performance stats that they can. The nice part is they can really be able to do that. That’s what the fun part really is for me in terms of the thesis, “What are the students going to come up with that they want to look at?” There’s so many different interests that I would never have thought about. I think, “Oh that’s really, really neat.” That’s why you do it. It’s fun to be able to see what people come up with.
The nice part is you could be in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade and be able to do a project in the summer that relates to football stats, for example. Go to Football Outsiders or go to NFL.com, and you can look at the data and fool around with whatever you want. It’s pretty amazing what’s out there. With just a little knowledge and a spreadsheet, you can really do a lot.
You mentioned earlier how you’ve had former sports analytics graduates leave the sports industry for greener pastures in other fields where they were making a lot more money. Do you feel like this sports analytics degree – and the skill sets at the core of it – will set graduates up for success, even if they decide to seek a career in other industries?
Yeah, I really think so. That’s really what it was designed for. When we created this program, I didn’t want to create something that was too specific.
The biggest disservice that society tends to do is we tell kids that math is hard and boring. Whereas, you can use something like sports to get them super excited about that. If they’re into football, who doesn’t want to talk about last week’s receivers and passing yardage or something like that. Then you can be able to make statistics approachable and see how that can be applied to those types of things.
So looking at the foundation of the sports analytics degree from our perspective, the math side, the business side, being able to code – in addition to the communications skills that we are trying to foster – I think that they work pretty much anywhere. Even though all of the experience is centered around sports, I think it is a skill set that translates well.
Of course, when you are talking about switching career fields, there’s going to be an adjustment process. If you don’t know anything about selling furniture, but there’s a job out there, to be able to see the analytics behind, and be able to stock the shelves, and figure out what prices you should be charging and things like that. You can relate it to an example about being able to think about inventory in a concession stand or something like that. I think there’s ways that those can be translated pretty easily.
Then the other part is, if there is that kind of specialized knowledge, what we’re hoping is that on the sports side you’re surrounding yourself with other people that love sports 24/7. It builds up a knowledge that is tough to replicate. Think about a financial company. Back to the boiler room days where people were using math that they really didn’t understand the finance behind it. You could be able to outsource that to people that were really good in math, and they didn’t know what they were looking for.
We’re hoping to be able to do both. We’re also hoping that what happens in the sports industry also happens in a lot of other industries, too. We may not be able to keep track of the performance stats for individuals like we would in terms of sports. I’m thankful for that. Thankfully, I’ve had really great people that made it very easy to double major. I’ve been able to look at students in their program to get their master’s in a very short order of time. Those things are really, really nice.
Our hope is that students can follow their dreams. It’s partially my job to say, “There are other things out there” to make sure they keep an open mind. I remember speaking with one of our first classes, and back then my mantra was, “You have to be able to consider outside of sports. You have to look at other things. If you’re just looking at the player evaluations side, you have to think about the business side of sports or other things as well.” Then, each of our first graduates take jobs with teams and it completely destroys my argument. It was funny in that way.
We try to instill that in them and encourage them to be able to take as many different majors, minors, and courses as they can fit in because you never know when you’re going to find something that could work. We have heard crazy stories on the road talking to teams about the things that they are actually keeping track of and what they’re monitoring.
For example, some teams research and track how much sunlight comes into a hotel room to help sleep cycles. Who would’ve thought that there’s somebody out there that’s going to have knowledge about those types of things. They’re going to come up with something that could be beneficial, and in the sports world that we live in, little advantages could be huge. It’s a roundabout way of saying that I really believe that the skills are marketable across the board.
That’s wild. I had never thought of the sunlight-coming-into-hotel-rooms aspect. That just goes to show you that’s the future we might be living in a few years.
It’s amazing you know. The amount of information to keep track of on athletes is incredible. Really, really smart people go out there to try and break this down. It’s incredible. That’s my biggest blessing: incredibly talented students that are super interested in what they do. That’s a lot of fun.