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What is Sports Analytics?

The practice of sports analytics has been around for decades, but recent advances in data collection and management technology have broadened its scope significantly. The use of data and statistics has become prolific throughout most major sports. In fact, a large portion of professional teams in the United States now routinely draw on the services of professional statisticians to support their operations. Tracking a baseball player’s batting average as a basis for measurement of potential or ability is just one of many examples of applying analytics to sports.

What is Sports Analytics?

Essentially, sports analytics is the practice of applying mathematical and statistical principles to sports and related peripheral activities. While there are many factors and priorities specific to the industry, sports analysts use the same basic methods and approach as any other kind of data analyst. Establishing parameters for measurement, like hit or fumble rate, and consistently collecting data from a broad sample is the basis of the analytics process. This data is then curated and optimized to improve the accuracy and usability of the results.

Traditionally, teams have use statistics, observations and intuition to make important decisions about drafting and recruiting athletes and to assess player performance. While statistics have always played an important role is evaluating player performance, high powered analytical tools can now be used to get a clearer and more detailed picture of player performance to make more informed decisions about utilization of talent. The use of sports analytics was highlighted in the 2011 film “Moneyball,” which tells the true story of the 2002 Oakland A’s using sports analytics to build successful team with a limited budget. They were able to use specific metrics to acquire undervalued players and make decisions about how best to use the talent they had. Sports analytics goes beyond traditional statistics to add accurate analysis to improve many factors in team performance.

On-Field Applications

Analytics has many on-field applications in a sports environment, including managing both individual and group performance. Coaches can use data to optimize exercise programs for their players and develop nutrition plans to maximize fitness. Analytics is also commonly used in developing tactics and team strategies. With thousands of games worth of data to study, analysts can look for patterns across a broad sample size regarding formation, counter strategies and other key variables.

Uses in Team Management

Practical data analysis has plenty of applications for the business side of sports as well. Since most professional sports teams function as businesses, they are always seeking ways to improve sales and reduce expenses across their organization. Some sports analysts specifically focus on issues regarding the marketing and sale of sports tickets and team merchandise. Modern marketing and fan outreach efforts also rely heavily on analytics to predict their consumer base and identify opportunities to increase brand engagement.

Academic Degrees in Sports Analytics

There are several degrees that can lead to a career in sports analytics. A degree in statistics and data analysis will provide the skills necessary to pursue a career in sports analytics. Some schools offer a bachelor’s degree in Sports Analytics. These programs offer coursework that studies such topics as game theory, economic strategy, probability and statistics, sports management, web scraping, programming, database management and sports data analysis. Graduates from these programs are uniquely qualified to enter the sports analytics field.

Some schools offer a concentration in sports data analytics within their Sports Management department. This allows the student to develop skills in statistics and analytics, while also developing an overall understanding of the field of Sports Management. Students who have already completed their bachelor’s degree may want to look into pursuing a master’s degree in Sports Analytics. These programs offer in-depth study of data science and predictive analytics as related to sports management and sports performance.

Careers in Sports Analytics

On a professional level, sports analyst falls under the umbrella of a statistician and other analytical fields. While some professionals specialize or expand their academic programs with sports-related courses, many have a degree in statistics or a related mathematical field. Analytics professionals may apply these skills in a number of settings, including sports team management. Overall, statistician careers in the US are projected to rise significantly through 2022, with a current median annual wage of roughly $80,000 across the profession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • One of the major employers of sports analytics professionals are professional and college sports programs. Statistics are a vital part of any sports program and sports analytics help teams make sense of the data and apply it to practical solutions in the program to increase performance on and off the field. Player statistics can be used to make informed decisions about athlete performance, game strategies and recruitment strategies. Off the field, sports analytics can be used to analyze data about such factors as fan engagement, ticket sales and concession sales in order to make the business run more efficiently.
  • Sports media companies such as ESPN, Fox Sports or Sports Illustrated are increasingly using sports analytics to enhance their sports reporting. While fans will likely be turned off by a strict discussion of statistics, sports analytics can be used to put sporting events and outcomes into perspective and give fans a greater context to appreciate athlete performance or game outcomes. For example, if a team comes from behind to win a game it is exciting, but it is even more interesting if you know that the probability of that outcome was 0.1%. Sports analytics can be used to improve reporting on sports events and engage fans as well as increase entertainment value.
  • Wearable technology companies are becoming essential to the world of sports and these companies need sports analysis professionals to develop their products. Wearable technologies collect an enormous amount of data from athletes and sports analytics plays a role in analyzing this data as well as specializing data collection for specific results. Sports analytics also plays an important role in the development of training technology such as simulators and virtual reality devices for athletes. Data analysis greatly enhances the accuracy of these simulations and allows athletes and coaches to try out strategies in many different game situations to prepare for many on field scenarios. Sports analysts may also find jobs in human performance labs. These labs use specific athlete training data to fine tune performance and increase training efficiency. Sports analytics plays a role in developing data driven training programs to increase an athlete’s competitive edge.

So, what is sports analytics? It is a growing field of data science with new and exciting uses being developed everyday. With hundreds of professional and college teams across various leagues, there are many ways to leverage data to gain a competitive or commercial advantage. Many fans are also interested and engaged with data-driven presentation and it is crucial for to businesses that conduct gambling and other gaming operations. With so many athletes looking to pinpoint performance and competitive edge, sports data analytics plays a vital role in developing targeted training programs and tweaking athletic performance. Thanks to numerous practical applications both on and off the field, sports analytics is becoming increasingly essential to virtually every aspect of player, team and organization management.

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