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Leveraging Data to Win the Game

Three Georgia Tech graduates reveal insights about the growing field of sports analytics.

The world of sports, like any industry, requires strategic, data-informed decision-making. However, unlike others, the sports industry is built on direct competition, where decisions have an immediate effect on outcomes, making data all the more indispensable.

As data access and technology advance, the field of sports analytics is growing larger and more relevant every day. For sports enthusiasts with a knack for data science, the expanding industry offers a wide variety of career opportunities. Data professionals play an important role in almost every sports industry need. By modeling, analyzing, and managing data using advanced math and statistic skills, data experts may help teams select ideal players, develop training regimens, analyze historical game trends, create gameplay strategies, predict game outcomes, and more.

Having graduated from Georgia Tech’s Online Masters of Science in Analytics (OMS Analytics) program, a number of Georgia Tech alumni have found their way into sports analytics, elevating the game with cutting-edge skills and a vision for innovation. They recently shared their top advice for navigating this dynamic field.

Getting Into the Industry

While hard skills in data analysis and working knowledge of relevant technologies like Python, SQL, and JavaScript are vital for a career in sports analytics, the foundation of a strong sports analytics skillset is a competitive desire to win. Just like the athletes on the field, the data experts informing decisions behind the scenes must be completely devoted to the team’s common goal to win.

“In sports, the competition drives innovation in our analytics,” says Bryan Hayes, director of baseball development with the New York Mets and 2021 graduate.

“When I’m competing against another team’s sports analytics, the results happen on the field.”

To prepare for a career in sports analytics, it’s also beneficial to bolster your resume by taking a personal initiative to develop your skills. Think about what interests you, find a problem to solve, and develop your own proof of concept.

“The best resumes that we get aren’t just ‘I graduated with this,’” explains Hayes. “They’re ‘I graduated with this, and here’s what I applied to this massive dataset I found online,’ for example.”

Don’t worry about perfecting the next ground-breaking innovation. Start small with what you know and gradually explore new spaces, taking every failure as another step closer to expertise. Plenty of data is publicly available online, which Saiem Gilani, director of data science and engineering for the Houston Rockets and 2020 graduate, consolidated into Sports Dataverse. Even more data can be found by networking with various experts in the field. When you’ve completed your project, publish it to sites such as GitHub to receive feedback for further improvement.

“Treat yourself like an organization that never stops recruiting, never stops scouting, never stops networking with smart people,” Gilani advises.

Rather than waiting for someone else to give you an assignment, push yourself to grow. If you can demonstrate that you know how to use data effectively before you’re hired, you’ll stand out among other applicants.

Thriving Inside the Industry

Data requires an astute mind to interpret and apply effectively. Raw data can be misleading, and it’s up to the data specialist to decipher it within the full context, weighing the numbers against other variables, known facts, and human intuition to uncover the most accurate finding.

“We all know that being comfortable with data means being comfortable with uncertainty,” says Cory Jez, another 2020 graduate who is now a pro sports executive and consultant.

“But organizationally, we need to be thinking about how we include that information in a holistic, well-integrated decision-making process.”

Most new insights are found at the intersection of a disagreement between data and human intuition, but skilled analysis is vital to ensure that the new insight is worth basing a new strategy on.

For this, communication is essential. Every sports team or organization consists of many different people with varying perspectives and areas of expertise. To arrive at the best strategy, everyone needs to be able to understand the data and provide their perspective. Context is important, and sports teams rely on skilled data experts to communicate it clearly to all their stakeholders for well-rounded, strategic collaboration.

Emerging Trends and Opportunities

Data is plentiful, and it is only becoming more so. Often, data for a single game must be split across several computers and takes significant time and storage to digest. Working with such large amounts of data is difficult, and as the quantity grows and techniques evolve, professionals will need to maintain and develop their skills in data management.

There is also an opportunity for teams to invest more in the improvement of their own players by integrating data more closely with player development. By adding data analytics to their academic expertise, teams can elevate their development strategy, specializing more accurately for each player, and pinpointing the most crucial needs and best practices for improvement.

Investing more data in player development provides an opportunity for elevating player acquisition, as well. With more data surrounding development, teams can better tailor their acquisitions to select the players best aligned with their team's specific needs and goals.

“If you can get acquiring and developing to work together, that’s the goal that we’re trying to solve,” says Hayes. “I think that is where sports analytics is going.”

Data Holds the Future

If you're interested in pursuing sports analytics, keep an open mind and a watchful eye for new opportunities with surrounding technologies. As the industry grows, sports analytics is acquiring new methods and processes, creating more opportunities for those who are willing to keep up.

“It's not just data science anymore,” says Jez. “There are also all the surrounding technologies – data engineering, front-end development, DevOps, and user experience – things that are not as commonly spoken about in the analytics space. And from observing the hiring trends in the space, data engineers and front-end developers are just as in demand as data scientists in this space.”

Data holds the future for sports. Find out more about Georgia Tech's Online Masters of Science in Analytics (OMS Analytics) program or click to view the full panel discussion on sports analytics.

 

Credits
Writer: Rachel Meyer
Editor & Digital Producer: Shannon Helton-Amos

 

Georgia Tech Professional Education is a leader in innovative educational delivery, designed for working professionals in tech, business, and leadership. Our connection to the marketplace — coupled with our world-class faculty, researchers, and subject matter experts — provides an unparalleled perspective on education innovation, industry trends, future work, and lifelong learning. To uncover additional trends, challenges, and opportunities impacting your industry, visit our Industry & Trends page.