Sports Analytics Degree and Job Prospects
In the world of sports, discovering areas where tiny–sometimes almost imperceptible–advantages exist between your side and the competition can make the difference between a championship and a heart-wrenching defeat. Knowing where to look for those advantages is where the industry of sports analytics comes in.
Sports analytics is the science of gathering and analyzing sports data to make intelligent decisions in sports. It is a huge, and growing business, and it has gained significant credibility in recent years as teams that have invested heavily in sports analytics have had a high degree of success. When the best selling book Moneyball by Michael Lewis was turned into a feature film years ago, the concept was formally introduced to popular culture, and the industry has experienced significant growth since then.
What Kind of Organizations Hire a Sports Data Analyst?
- Sports Marketing Agencies
- Professional Teams
- Professional Leagues
- Collegiate Teams
- Collegiate Leagues
- Sports Analytics Firms
- Media Outlets
- Tech Firms
What Does a Sports Analyst Do?
It varies from organization to organization, but here are some examples of how different companies might use sports analytics.
At a broadcasting company, a sports analyst would be responsible for compiling data, finding trends, and conveying data in a way that fans can understand. There are some media outlets that have their sports analysts front and center and working with the color commentator as the game is broadcasted live, while others have their sports analysts behind the scenes compiling reports and sifting through data.
Professional organizations rely on their sports analysts to help provide insight on their own team, players, and the competition. An opposing pitcher’s percentage of fastballs, versus curveballs and first pitch ball vs. strike is important information which helps the team prepare for their game. If a team has a higher likelihood of going for it on 4th down, then this may help coaches predict what kind of play is coming on third down.
A sports analyst may also be communicating directly with players and coaches. It is important that you can present your findings in a way that makes sense to your audience. This may mean making video highlights of past games backed up with interactive charts and meaningful statistics. Generally, coaches and players will want reports and feedback from past matches to debrief their performance, as well as a scouting report for future games.
Depending on the size of the organization, and its budget, a sports analyst could be responsible for several different categories, or the role could be more narrowly focused. As an example, some teams have a scouting analyst that is solely responsible for tracking data related to new potential players. Another person may be responsible for post-game summaries, while another analyst gathers data for individual players, and another will focus on data relevant to upcoming games. In a smaller organization, one person may be responsible for compiling and presenting data related to all of the above areas.
It is hard to comprehend just what a massive industry both fantasy sports and sports gambling have become in recent years, but the numbers don’t lie. Sports analytics is the very foundation of sports gambling since raw data sets are the foundation of all odds on the books. With a $700+ billion turnover around the world annually, it is increasingly seen as a pivotal partner industry to the sports themselves, increasing the fan base and becoming massive sponsors of sports teams and stadiums which feed into the overall sports industry.
Over in the UK where gambling is already legal – just as it currently is in 18 states in the US – companies like Bet365, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power are all major sponsors of English Premier League clubs, and these companies employ countless statisticians, who are finding new ways to define and record the metrics used to analyze games. Looking at the growth of fantasy sports and how quickly many states have legalized gambling since New Jersey broke the barrier in 2018, there is no question that these industries are poised for considerable growth.
With these changes to laws in recent years, it certainly seems like the negative stigma that has often been associated with gambling is starting to fade throughout popular culture around the world. All of this while the cost of technologies, data storage, and computer modeling have been decreasing, helping sports analytics companies boost their margins has left the job market trying to keep up with the incredible wave of demand for sports data analysts.
Skills Required To Be a Sports Analyst
Being successful in sports analytics takes committing to a number of factors. As freelance author Sam Gregory famously wrote back in 2017,
“…you need to understand the sport, what the problems that the sport presents are, how data can be used to approach these problems and how to communicate all of this in a succinct and easy to understand manner.”Sam Gregory, [source]
Being able to handle large chunks of data is crucial. It helps to have an understanding of the game you are analyzing, but what is more important is the numbers. Getting a 1% edge over the competition can mean a few more wins in a baseball season which can mean the difference between a fruitful playoff run and packing it up early and watching the World Series on TV. Every additional game a team plays in the playoffs is worth millions of dollars. Think of the revenue from ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, TV revenue and the priceless amount of PR in local media outlets.
Also the ability to watch hours of the sport and track data points. Many soccer clubs in European leagues track every single time a player touches a ball. Who passed the ball? Was it intercepted from the other teams’ attack? Did that player continue to take the ball up the field or pass it off immediately? Did that touch result in their team losing possession? Did it start a cascade of events that resulted in a goal? As you can see it can be more complicated than looking at a teams win-loss record and the amount of minutes played by each player. While there is some software that helps track this data, many of the data points are recorded by hand which allows the data to be tracked throughout the course of the game, the season, and a players’ career. Being devoted to the sports and enjoying watching it will help make the work much more enjoyable and satisfying.
Communication skills. While sifting through data is necessary, the numbers mean nothing if they cannot be clearly communicated. It takes a certain type of talent to convey complicated information in a simple way, however this is a talent that can be achieved with practice.
Sports Analysts by the numbers:
- This is a very fast growing field which projected growth through 2022 being at 27 percent. [source]
- A sport statistician’s median pay in 2019 was $92,030 per year ($44.25/hr.). [source]
The Path to Becoming a Successful Sports Analyst
Get yourself acquainted with the field
It is a complicated and interesting field that requires knowledge of data science, statistics, and for many a passion of sports. In the current age of the internet there is a wealth of knowledge out in the world. As you are job searching, studying, or preparing your portfolio, set time aside to read articles or blogs regularly, listen to podcasts, or even check out some books from your local library (or purchase them). Some great titles are…
- Mathletics: How Gamblers, Managers, and Sports Enthusiasts Use Mathematics in Baseball, Basketball, and Football by Wayne Winston.
- Trading Bases: How a Wall Street Trader Made a Fortune Betting on Baseball by Joe Peta.
- Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.
- Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver
- Chasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion by Andy Glockner
Learn the necessary foundational skills
If you already have a background in programming, then you are off to a great start. If not, don’t worry, there are plenty of resources to help you learn some of these languages. In the world of data science and statistics, Python and R reign supreme as the languages that are essential to being able to easily scrape the web for the data points you are looking for, organize them in a way that will help you to interpret the data, and then you will be one big step closer to landing your dream job. It is also a good idea to get familiar with some data visualization tools like Tableau, Microsoft PowerBI, Looker, or InsightSquared.
Strongly Consider Studying a Master’s Degree in Sports Analytics
Sports Analyst Degree Programs – The First Step Toward Becoming a Professional Sports Analyst
The field of sports analytics touches nearly every aspect of sports today, and nothing prepares you better to succeed in this field than a degree in sports analytics. Sports Analysts are the people discovering patterns, crunching numbers, and observing trends from raw data. Organizations throughout professional sports rely on Sports Analysts to make important decisions about strategy, personnel, drafting, and coaching. Sports analytics professionals are skilled at determining how to compare sets of raw data and how to extrapolate insight and strategy from raw data, and are able to process and interpret various code languages and data points. A foundation in programming and statistics prior to study will be a significant advantage, as sports analysts will be well served by the ability to interpret nuanced data in a productive manner.
Related Degree Programs
Settling on a field of study can be a daunting task – if you are unsure if sports analytics is the right fit for you, please read through the rest of this guide to learn more about the field and how it can help you pursue a career in the wide world of sports. Given that analytics is more important than ever in both the business world and in sports, any degree which includes a solid foundation of both business and analytics is incredibly marketable, and it might just be your ticket to a lucrative career in sports.
Online Degree Programs
In the post-COVID world, more and more students are choosing to explore programs which feature 100% online instruction. While the virus certainly served to speed up the shift to online degree programs, the reality is that this momentum has been building for years. Below you will learn about some of the many reasons to consider doing an online degree in sports analytics.
- Cost. This is an important consideration. The cost of traditional university level education has far outpaced the rate of inflation. This means that money spent on traditional schooling has increased faster than the value of that same dollar. Many universities follow the “Gucci” mentality, where they raise their tuition and fees to associate themselves in the consumers’ mind as an elite brand. However, a higher price tag does not always mean a higher quality education. Many online programs have comparable quality to expensive 4 year colleges and universities, yet the cost is significantly lower. Many universities are seeing the trend of online learning gaining traction and are establishing their own programs.
- Content. Much of the content presented in a course about Sports Analytics relies on open source software (i.e. free) and programming languages that are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. To be fair, learning a lot of these concepts on your own is possible, but is generally more time consuming (and probably frustrating). Getting the content you need explained in a way that you can understand is an important process in learning anything, including sports analytics.
- Flexibility. Depending on the program, lectures can sometimes be viewed at any time and homework, classwork, and tests are submitted online. This allows you to work on the project anytime from anywhere. It is feasible and common practice to do an online program while working a fulltime job.
- Barriers to Entry. Generally speaking, online programs will be less selective than brick and mortar institutions, however, that does not mean that there is necessarily a difference in quality or content of the curriculum or instruction. Just because a school is more selective and expensive, that does not mean it is better quality! Online education has fewer barriers to entry in that the price is a fraction of a standard university, and its prerequisites would be something along the lines of a High School diploma or GED.
Landing the First Job
With a relevant degree in hand, the next logical step for many would be to get hired. What is the best way forward?
- Leverage Your Network! This is a competitive industry with a lot of people willing to work for low wages or even for free to get their foot in the door. If you are in the financial position to do the same, it could very well pay off in the long run. There are conferences around the country related to sports analysis. Perhaps the most famous is the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. This is an excellent opportunity to meet like-minded people and grow your professional network. Many times conferences post their featured speakers, sponsors, and in some cases attendees. It is wise to comb through this list and make it a point to try and speak with people from organizations which you are interested in working with. While this is not the best time to hand out your resume, it could be a very good time to make a first introduction, grab their contact information and follow up at a later point in time. If you are comfortable you can offer to provide your services for free if they have any projects they need help with.
- Create a portfolio. There is an incredible amount of publicly available data that you can use to start your first project. This will help to get you familiar with different software and tools that you would need to use on the job, and it can be very helpful to have a goal to work towards, and then figure things out as you go. While this may lead to a feeling of spinning your wheels and not making progress as fast as you would like, just remember that every day working on the project is time well spent. A project that is in the works is a great talking point as you are meeting analysts in the industry. A completed project is an even better talking point.
- Share your knowledge and projects with the world. Social Media has become increasingly important for job seekers. It can be a double edged sword depending on what you are posting, but consistently sharing articles that are interesting, and sharing your own projects and reports will help you get noticed and gain credibility in the field. If you have a project you are proud of, reach out to media publications, sports blogs, sports radio shows, professional teams, and see if they are interested in your analysis. The worst thing that could happen is they said no, and the best thing that could happen is you could get paid for your work, gain exposure, and maybe even land a job.
- Further Schooling. If you have gone through the motions of learning some of the tools of the trade and could use more professional instruction, then think about the return on investment of time and money. Ultimately it is up to the applicant how they will build up their resume with the education, portfolio, and experience. However, a certification or degree in data science or statistics can go a long way in providing you with a solid foundation for your career as well as keeping the momentum going of building your projects and portfolio.