Sports analytics is a fascinating but enigmatic field. There are tremendous opportunities for analytics on the fan facing side (daily fantasy & sports gambling), but what goes on behind the doors of NBA, NFL, and MLB franchises can be a complete mystery. For someone looking to get into the field, it can be an extremely confusing place to start.
I have been working in sports analytics (Golf & Basketball) for the last 4 years, these are my recommendations on how to get into the field:
Read Profusely — There is an absurd amount of sports analytics content on the internet. I recommend getting familiar with as much of it as you can. I also recommend exploring the following book: Mathletics by Wayne Winston. It is a great point of departure for understanding analytics in the three major sports. It may be a little dated, but you should be able to self study and expand on the analysis after finishing the book. Here are a few of my favorite places for learning about sports analytics online:
- https://medium.com/playing-numbers (our content)
Learn the Necessary Skills and Tools — Coding languages and visualization tools are becoming increasingly important in analytics. Excel models will soon be a remnant of the past. If you are looking to get into this field, you will need to learn to use Python or R. With these tools, you are able to process significantly more information than you would be able to with a traditional spreadsheet. You should also explore visualization tools like Power BI and Tableau. Insight is meaningless if you cannot explain it. People understand graphs and pictures better than words, so do your best to explain your findings through visuals.
Engage with Professional Sports Teams — Sports teams are always looking for new ways to find quality candidates. There are many opportunities to meet the right people and showcase your stuff at conferences (MIT Sloan, SABR). These shows also usually offer free or discounted rates to students. Hackathons are also becoming increasingly popular in the sports community. The NBA hosts one every year and the NFL has started hosting them on kaggle.com. These are great ways to get access to unique sports data and to get recognition for your work. Many teams that I have worked with hire directly from these contests. If you actually manage to win one of these, you are all but guaranteed a job.
Work With Your University Sports Teams — If you are a student, I would recommend finding a way to work with one of the sports teams on your campus. Even if the role isn’t numbers related, teams value individuals that are familiar with how high level sports teams are run. Working in sports is a bit of a fraternity, and getting your foot in the door is extremely important. If you can manage to assist your college team using analytics, this is an additional feather in your cap.
Do Projects — I believe that this is the single most important thing you can do. Not only do projects help you to get familiar with the tools and analysis techniques, they also build your resume. If you can create value for a team with a project you have already done, they will be significantly more inclined to hire you. If they hire you, they get access to your previous work / findings and any new findings that you come across. At playing numbers you can find data that we have aggregated across multiple different sports. This can be the starting place for your projects.
Produce Content — I am probably one of the few people that will tell you to tweet more. You should be posting your projects to github, kaggle, your blog, your website, twitter, facebook, instagram, Playing Numbers, or any other place you can think of online. No one will know what you are capable of if they do not see your work. There is also additional pressure and scrutiny that you receive by making your work public that will help to improve your skills. I created Playing Numbers publication for this reason. Hopefully this will be a space for you to share your work and actually get it published. If you’re interested in writing for us, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t publish everything, but our editors will work with you and give you feedback about how to improve your analysis.
Reach Out — If you have an interesting finding that you think could help a team win, don’t be afraid to reach out to analytics decision makers. I would also be active on twitter posting analysis and reaching out within the community. You never know who you may get through to.
Sports analytics is a tough market to crack; however, if you follow these recommendations you will be setting yourself up for success.