Top Statisticians Answer Your Most Burning Questions About Careers in Sports Analytics

The ASA recently held a webinar about careers in sports analytics, covering topics from how to get a job as a sports statistician to understanding the types of problems they solve. Below are some of the most popular questions answered by the moderator, Scott Evans from Harvard, and panelists, Dennis Lock of the Miami Dolphins and Stephanie Kovalchik of Tennis Australia.


 

Dr. Scott Evans

Scott Evans

Dr. Dennis Lock

Dennis Lock

Dr. Stephanie Kovalchik

Stephanie Kovalchik


How big is the job market for sports analytics?

Statistics is projected to be one of the fastest-growing jobs over the next several years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anecdotally, we are seeing similar growth in sports statistics. For example, Dennis Lock, director of analytics for the Miami Dolphins, observes that when he began his first project for the NFL in 2005, none of the professional teams had analytics departments. Today, most teams either have analytics programs or are working to establish them. We’re also seeing similar trends for the NBA and NHL.

What qualities do hiring managers seek for these positions?

In addition to core skills in statistical methods and computer programming, sports teams look for individuals who are good collaborators and know their sport well. Sports statisticians must be able to work with coaches, players, operations personnel, managers, owners and others to help them identify and pursue opportunities to gain insight from statistics.

How much of a say does the analytics department have in personnel decisions, such as the NFL draft?

Their role is to add unique information and insight towards the decision making process across all of football operations. This includes analyses of draft prospects or general draft strategy, as well as free agency and in-season roster decisions. Overall the analytics department plays a role in the process of most personnel decisions within the organization.

When discussing your findings with decision makers, who may not know a lot of statistics, how much detail do you get into?

It’s really important that a statistician be able to explain their analysis using non-technical language and at a level of detail that can be understood by others. This is such a critical part of the job that aspiring sports statisticians should go out of their way to take writing and other communication courses in college in addition to their statistical and computing courses.

What is the best degree to pursue for a career in sports analytics?

A statistics undergraduate degree is great preparation for a career in sports analytics. It’s also important to take courses in computer science and programming. The ASA also recommends taking courses in the humanities that offer opportunities to develop strong written and verbal communication skills.

What computer programming languages do you use most often in your work?

As a sports statistician, strong proficiency in a statistical programming language like R, python or Matlab is critical. Knowledge of database management languages, such as SQL, is also recommended as sports statisticians are increasingly having to handle large datasets.

Where can I learn about open positions for sports statisticians?

Attend events such as the New England Symposium on Statistics in Sports (NESSIS: www.nessis.org) and the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. There are also international events, such as Mathsport International, that can introduce you to researchers and opportunities in the most popular world sports. Also look into any sports statistics labs or clubs at your college or university’s statistics department. Finally, join the American Statistical Association’s Section on Statistics in Sports (discounted membership rates are available to students).

I’m a recent graduate with a PhD in economics and epidemiology. The program focused a lot on study design and bias, so I feel many of my skills would apply to sports analytics. How can I make the transition?

One way to make a transition is to seek out opportunities to perform a sports statistician’s role. This can be done through a formal internship, as more of those opportunities are being offered in sport, or on a voluntary or pro bono basis. You can find these opportunities through networking and educational events such as NESSIS or other events listed above. Many sports statisticians got their start by doing research on their own time, as much sports data is available on the Web, and published their work in magazines, journals or online. This can be a great way to get recognized by industry for your interest and skills in sport analytics.

Want to learn more about careers in sports analytics? Watch the full webinar here.

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