Getty Images / Illustration by Liz Spangler
When Syracuse University leaders first approached sports economics professor Rodney Paul about growing a baseball analytics club he started on campus a dozen years ago into a degree program, he declined.
Analytics had become a buzzy topic around sports, with basketball, football and hockey teams beginning to follow a trend that had created dozens of jobs at Major League Baseball clubs. Paul knew the competition for those team operations jobs was fierce, attracting data scientists from elite programs, headlined by MIT.
He didn’t think there were enough jobs to support a specialized degree program.
But the attention that came from an ESPN The Magazine story that featured his sabermetrics club’s work kept his bosses coming back to him. Bolstered by a $15 million donation from alumnus David Falk, the school’s sports management program had an increased appetite for expansion.
Taking a second look, Paul considered the likelihood that the same growth of data-driven decision-making that had swept the sports side of many organizations would lead to new departments and jobs on the business side, as teams incorporated more sophisticated predictive modeling there.
Comfortable that there would be demand, he set to work on a recipe to provide a supply — a curriculum that would allow someone with a specialized bachelor’s degree to compete for jobs that also might attract MBAs and Ph.D.s. He approached it in the framework of a baseball scout, focusing on five tools that would make for qualified job prospects.
“We had one student that lost out in the final rounds of two NFL jobs, both to Ph.D.s. And this was a 21-year-old senior in college. That’s the world they live in, so if you want to do it you have to be able to take on those odds.” — Rodney Paul, director of sports analytics, Syracuse University syracuse university
They would have high-level math — 15 credit hours of it, enough to double major in math if they so choose. They would learn programming languages like R, Python and SQL for data analysis and Tableau for data visualization — baseline skills required to work in most business intelligence units — all through classes designed specifically for use in sports. They would take core business courses, including finance, accounting and 12 hours of economics, including game theory. They would take many of the classes necessary for a sports management major, plus two sports analytics classes that are in addition to the computer skills classes. And they would take a foreign language, chosen based on what might be most useful in the sport in which they hoped to work.
All of it would lead to a two-semester senior thesis on a subject of choice, producing a “calling card” project that they could use to demonstrate their skills to employers.
“I tell the freshmen, ‘You’re going to be going up against Ph.D.s for some of these jobs,’” said Paul, who has served as director of the sports analytics program at Syracuse since its launch in 2016. “We had one student that lost out in the final rounds of two NFL jobs, both to Ph.D.s. And this was a 21-year-old senior in college. That’s the world they live in, so if you want to do it you have to be able to take on those odds.”
Career opportunities in analytics are no secret to those pursuing jobs in sports. Professors, career counselors and guest speakers at the leading sports management programs across the country all routinely tell students that’s where an open job is most likely to reside at a team, and increasingly with service providers, agencies and sports sponsors.
But the supply of qualified students graduating from those programs with the necessary skills to land those jobs remains relatively thin. Only 12% of the more than 200 sports management master’s and sports-focused MBA programs in the U.S. offer even one class in sports analytics, with only 7% requiring one to graduate, according to surveys conducted by the Sports Innovation Institute at IUPUI (see chart, Page 21). A slightly higher percentage of undergraduate programs offer an analytics class, the survey found.
That dearth has led to an opportunity that some programs hope to seize upon, driven by the realization that a class or two likely will not be enough to compete with the deeper skill set most sports organizations now require from an analyst.
Northwestern offers a four-class analytics concentration in its master’s in sports administration program. American has an online master’s program in sports analytics and management. Temple, which was one of the first programs to offer a sports analytics class, has an analytics concentration in its master’s program. Ole Miss and Oklahoma both offer M.S. degrees in sports analytics. Samford has an analytics concentration in its sports-focused MBA. NYU offers a handful of classes in its sports master’s program.
“There is more growth in this area than in any other area, especially on the property side,” said Russ Scibetti, vice president of strategy and business intelligence for the New York Giants. “That’s why colleges have gone from having one or two classes to having dedicated tracks and making it more of a focus. I’m excited to see how curriculums are evolving to make it more of a focal point.”
Along with his role at the Giants, Scibetti is an adjunct lecturer in the sports master’s program at Columbia University, where he designed two business intelligence classes, one of which he still teaches. He estimates half the students in his class intend to pursue analytics jobs, while the rest take it to broaden their understanding of a specialty that now touches most departments in any sports organization.
“Even if you’re not focused on a career in analytics, it’s almost like it should be a requirement that you get just a little bit of it,” Scibetti said. “They’re all going to work with [business intelligence]. If they’re not in my department, guess what, I’m still going to be working with them. B.I. works with everyone. So even from a generalist’s perspective they need to have that awareness and programs that still make that part of the baseline.”
Competing for job candidates
Those applying for a job in business intelligence with the San Francisco 49ers are sent two tests to complete over the course of a weekend. Applicants must review actual concessions data from a game. They analyze the data and produce a PowerPoint presentation with recommendations based on their findings from the data set.
“By doing that one test, I can examine their SQL and R skills,” said Moon Javaid, chief strategy officer for the San Francisco 49ers. “I can examine their ability to synthesize information and draw conclusions. And I can understand their ability to put that into a deck. We’re in a place where we test individuals pretty thoroughly before they even get an interview with us. And that has really jumped our bar of who we have in house.
“I don’t think teams know how to find those qualified candidates. I’m just being honest. Even me. I’ve had two analyst openings for the past two months.” — Moon Javaid, chief strategy officer, San Francisco 49ersTomas Ovalle / Silicon Valley Business Journal
“It’s not to say that if you fail this test you’re never going to get the job. We do take on some people who don’t perform as well because they exhibited strengths in other areas. But it helps us understand where they are so we can invest early on in their training if that’s what is needed.”
Not surprisingly, the Niners are at the deeper end of the business intelligence pool among major U.S. sports franchises, with as many as a dozen analysts serving departments across the business side of the franchise and also working on projects with affiliated consulting firm Elevate Sports Ventures.
Credentials in the department speak to the competitiveness of the candidate pool. Javaid got his MBA at Chicago Booth, as did Umesh Johari, the vice president of business strategy and analytics. Senior director Alison Lu holds a Harvard MBA. There also are MBA grads from UCLA and Arizona State.
When Javaid joined the 49ers from the consulting and investment banking world in 2013, only 20% of teams had a person in business strategy or intelligence. Today, nearly 90% have a group, he said, with teams employing an average of four to six people, depending on the sport.
Higher salaries for similar roles in other sectors have made it difficult to land and keep qualified candidates, Javaid said.
“Right now, I just don’t think there’s a connection point,” Javaid said. “I don’t think teams know how to find those qualified candidates. I’m just being honest. Even me. I’ve had two analyst openings for the past two months.”
High turnover has exacerbated the problem. Each Monday, strategy and business intelligence executives from as many as 100 teams join in a call to share best practices and discuss trends. That call typically is followed by a list of job openings circulated among the teams.
“Every week there’s a dozen,” he said. “It’s not just that it’s growing. It’s that the average tenure is a year and a half to two years. It’s six people per department and 120 teams and these people are going to rotate in and out. And no one has solved this problem yet.”
That demand has been evident at Syracuse, where Paul said the program’s placement levels have been high despite the fact that it doesn’t include the master’s degree that many teams prefer. In one recent week alone, six students from the class that will graduate later this month secured opportunities with teams: two each with clubs in the NFL, NHL and MLB. Seventeen of about 40 upcoming grads have landed slots with a team on the business or operations side, he said. Many are internships, but those frequently turn into jobs.
Other students will land at sportsbooks, agencies and elsewhere, while some will pursue a graduate degree. One is headed to Sony to work on MLB The Show. Another is going to work for Dick’s Sporting Goods.
“I think there are a lot of elite students at elite institutions who want to go into this and obviously have the ability to be able to do it,” Paul said. “What we’re selling is that you’re going to be around 30-some other people who want the same thing as you. You get to be a team member and try to make each other better.
“We’ve been able to attract an amazing level of talent in terms of aptitude and ability.”
Creating a specialty
When IUPUI launched its master’s program in sports analytics in 2015, it created two degree pathways:
A plus-one option that allows students to also earn their master’s in five years by adding 12 hours of graduate-level data science classes to their sports management bachelor’s requirements.
A sports management track that adds nine hours of sports-focused work to a master’s in applied data science.
The add-on to the data science master’s includes an applied consulting project, which in the past has meant working with the Indianapolis Colts and Pacers, the NCAA and Genius Sports.
“What it’s going to take to land one of those jobs varies, but it’s definitely not just one [sports analytics] class. You don’t just take a class and have all the competencies that you need. Not even close.” — David Pierce, director, IUPUI Sports Innovation Instituteiupui
The program is relatively small, with a couple of students each year electing to math up sufficiently to pursue the plus-one option or a student from the data sciences program electing to pursue sports even after they realize how opportunities there compare to those in other sectors. But in the past 18 months, IUPUI grads have landed jobs with the Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Fire. One was part of a team that won a competition at MIT Sloan’s famed sports analytics conference.
“What it’s going to take to land one of those jobs varies, but it’s definitely not just one [sports analytics] class,” said David Pierce, director of the IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute. “You don’t just take a class and have all the competencies that you need. Not even close.”
The University of South Florida’s Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program was another of the early adopters of analytics curriculum, unashamedly — and realistically — focusing on preparing students to work on the business side.
Typically, seven to 10 members of an entering sports MBA and MSA class of 35 say they want to pursue analytics careers when they enter the program, with three or four more crossing over to it after they begin classes. The program offers one sports analytics course, but gives students who want to go that route the schedule flexibility to take classes offered through the information systems or data sciences programs.
It also funnels those students to projects, internships and fellowship slots in business intelligence and analytics departments.
“I think it’s critical that they take those additional analytics courses,” said Mike Mondello, a professor and associate program director at USF’s Vinik program who teaches sports analytics and finance. “They learn other skill sets that complement what we teach. I think that’s what you have to do because they’re competing against people who have computer science degrees. But I don’t think you can ignore the sports business part of it. I think having both is critical.”
Along with teaching sports analytics and serving as an adviser to students pursuing that route, Mondello coordinates an annual sports analytics conference that the program hosts. When he asks executives what skills they want to see from job candidates, they say that while baseline skills in R, SQL, Python and Tableau are essential, they’d like to see those married to an understanding of how they apply in sports.
“They’re looking for those hard skill sets but they want to find someone who can communicate the findings in a meaningful way,” Mondello said. “And that’s where some folks who are not trained in sports business struggle. They’re very good at the technical side, but if you ask them to tell you the three key takeaways from this dashboard you built and how it’s meaningful to help us, they struggle with that.
“We have students who are thinking about that every day.”