Last Updated on July 21, 2021
Sports Analytics Career Guide
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.
Why Should You Consider a Degree in Sports Analytics?
Over the past two decades, analytics has played a significant role in revolutionizing every aspect of sport. By now, even casual sports fans are aware that every front office of every professional sports team has an analytics team that influences almost every decision that is made. But some might not realize the degree to which analytics have changed virtually every aspect of sport – not just what happens on the playing field.
Sports analytics has changed the way sports teams interact with their supporters and the way that fans engage with their favorite teams. Teams know a great deal about their fans’ preferences, how to best get their attention, and how much they might spend at an event. Analytics provides sponsors and advertisers with concrete information about how their partnerships and campaigns are affecting their brand and driving revenue in ways that were simply not possible even a decade ago.
Sports analytics is also changing the game through the lessons of sport and exercise science. More data is being collected for each team and each athlete at the collegiate and professional levels than ever before, including vitals, speed, and acceleration. This data collection goes far beyond traditional statistics like passes, goals, and touches. But what does it all mean?
The burden for discovering the advantages and the stories to be told by this ocean of data sits squarely with the sports analytics teams. There are important advantages waiting to be discovered in virtually every aspect of the game – including nutrition, fitness regimens, player usage, team strategy, and much more. The challenge of reading the data and helping the team understand the story that is being told is the job of the sports analytics professionals.
In the world of sport, 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.
This guide will present sports analytics as an intriguing career field for a number of reasons. Without question, the field is growing in new and exciting ways, so graduates who know how to approach a wide range of problems in a professional manner should have no problem finding career opportunities. And because there are a wide array of problems that need to be solved. This ranges from the game and player angle, to the business side, to the sport and exercise science approach. Sports analytics is applicable to many different sectors of the sports industry and is thus appealing to people with vastly different interests.
Dan Matheson, the former director of baseball operations for the New York Yankees, interviewed with SportsDegreesOnline.org and had this to say on the future of sports analytics:
“I think you are going to see continued growth in the use of analytics as an important element of the decision making process, in all areas of sports. Analytics gets a lot of attention on the player personnel side, on the field and on the court but analytics will play a big role in all aspects of an organization from sponsorship deals to social media and game presentation.”
What do Sports Analytics Professionals Do?
It varies from organization to organization, but here are some examples of how different companies might use sports analytics.
Professional organizations rely on their sports analytics teams in a number of ways. Sports teams have a few primary objectives which drive all of the decisions that they make. Those objectives are – in no particular order – 1) to win games, 2) to make money, and 3) to entertain their fans. Analytics play a significant role in each of these objectives.
There are analysts that are working towards positive on the field outcomes, while there are others concerned with maximizing profit, fan engagement, and other business-related metrics. In an interview with SportsDegreesOnline.org, Dr. Ted Hayduk from New York University highlighted that
“…in reality, for every analyst looking at ‘on field’ outcomes, there are probably three to five analysts in the business strategy or marketing verticals. And, generally speaking, these two groups don’t speak to each other because they are concerned with very different outcomes.”
Depending on the size of the organization, and its budget, a sports analytics professional 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, and a whole team of analysts that examines the business side of the organization. In a smaller organization, one person may be responsible for compiling and presenting data related to all of the above areas.
Sports Analytics to Win Games
In recent years, professional organizations have poured an incredible amount of time and resources into building winning teams, and a significant part of team building strategy is informed by analytics. Sports analytics is used by the scouting and player development departments to help the front office assemble the most competitive team each season. According to Professor Darin White of Samford University, who recently spoke with SportsDegreesOnline.org “If you look at baseball, for example, your typical pro team now has several dozen analytical executives that work for [professional teams]” – which is pretty incredible since there were so few teams doing this research two decades ago.
On game day and throughout the season, teams rely on their sports analytics departments to help provide insight into 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 that 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.
During the game, there are analytics professionals communicating directly with players and coaches to help the team understand the strategies that are being deployed by the opposing teams. Sports analytics professionals must be effective communicators because their findings must be presented in a way that makes sense to the 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.
Sports Business Analytics
Professional teams always hope to maximize profits, so naturally, they want to make sure they are selling plenty of tickets, merchandise, and concessions. If tickets are not selling as quickly as they would like, the team will turn to their business analytics department to determine which type of clients they should try to entice to come to the game. The business analytics department would likely which type of tickets should be prioritized based on the tickets that are already sold. Based on the initial findings, the team could decide whether to push season ticket packages, increase advertising on Facebook to target their missing fans or offer discounted family packages to fill up the cheap seats.
During the game, the business analytics team would also be hard at work gathering data about how effective each of their in-game components are at engaging their fans. They will be monitoring things like sales of concessions and merchandise, how many fans are using in-game apps for fantasy statistics, and any other traffic that they hope to drive.
Sports Analytics as Entertainment
At a broadcasting company, a sports analytics expert 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.
Teams are investing heavily in in-game entertainment to encourage viewers to stay tuned as much as possible. It is not uncommon for teams to have things like live predictions of the next play, or the result of the current situation to increase engagement from fans. All of these in-game, statistics-based activities are produced by the sports analytics team.
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 nearly half of the states in the US – companies like Bet365, Ladbrokes, and Paddy Power are all major sponsors of English Premier League clubs. 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.
What Kind of Organizations Hire a Sports Analytics Graduate?
- Sports Marketing Agencies
- Professional Teams
- Professional Leagues
- Collegiate Teams
- Collegiate Leagues
- Sports Analytics Firms
- Media Outlets
- Tech Firms
Skills Required To Be a Sports Analyst
Being successful in sports analytics takes committing to a number of factors. Chief among them, you need to know your sport(s) inside and out. As sports analyst and freelance author Sam Gregory wrote a few years back,
“…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. For organizations and companies who invest in sports analytics teams, discovering even 1% edge over the competition or an few areas of inefficiency can make the difference between a successful run in the playoffs 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.
Likewise on the business side of things, discovering a few areas of inefficiency that are easily improved or launching a new app that increases fan engagement exponentially can help the bottom line in significant ways.
One skill that can come in handy is 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 team’s win-loss record and the number 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 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.
Math and statistics are important, but maybe not in the way you are thinking. We asked Dr. Ted Hayduk from NYU about the importance of mathematics when pursuing a career in sports analytics. He pointed out that statistics is subtly different than pure mathematics, which is filled with calculations and memorization of formulas. In many cases, working with statistics in sports analytics is more conceptual. An important point to consider when working with models and statistics is that “A lot of the models in analytics are really just middle school applied math like linear algebra and matrix algebra, but on steroids.”
Professor Hayduk also shares some advice on specific coding skill sets that he expects to be an important part of a future in this industry:
“Coding languages such as R and Python are more flexible and thus allow the analyst to complete a wider array of tasks integral to the data science process (and to complete them more seamlessly). Also, as part of the data science toolkit, future practitioners in sport will likely need to be familiar with more advanced modeling techniques related to machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), and deep learning (DL).Ted Hayduk, Statistical Modeling and Sports Business Analytics
Dr. Hayduk continues to explain that the understanding of the AI/ML/DL process “aim to aid computers improve their execution of certain tasks by constantly incorporating new information.” [Source]
Beyond knowing which questions to ask and having the tools to answer them using huge sets of data, there is two other key aspects which sports analytics professionals must be fluent in. The first is the ability to communicate results. Dr. Hayduk explains,
“The final stage of the data analysis process involves disseminating findings and communicating about the results. This represents a special challenge for data science because it often involves distilling very complex concepts and methodologies into palatable, clear insights. Furthermore, being able to relate the tactical findings of the analysis to the larger strategic implications it generates is a unique skill in and of itself.Ted Hayduk, Statistical Modeling and Sports Business Analytics
The second key skill set – which is related to the first – is the ability to understand how the data might be visualized so that it can be easily and instantly expressed to a diverse group of people. Again, Dr. Hayduk explains,
“In order to clarify and effectively communicate the results of an analytics project, analysts will need to become familiar with various data visualization techniques and programs. Data visualization refers to the process of presenting complex relationships in ways that are visually informative and thus palatable to someone unfamiliar with the technicalities of the analysis. A well-made data visualization tool can make the difference between other stakeholders accurately interpreting the results of a project or not.Ted Hayduk, Statistical Modeling and Sports Business Analytics
Sports Analytics 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 for 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
- Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History by Erik Malinowski
- A Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World by Pedro Domingos
- The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman
- Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
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 Analytics to make important decisions about strategy, personnel, drafting, coaching, marketing, promotion, and general business strategy. 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.
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.