I have spent many hours on the phone with budding sports analysts. Some are students that are convinced that they want a career in pro sports, some are analytic professionals that are looking to put their tools to work in an industry that they are more passionate about, and others are coaches or athletes that see that analytics in sports is growing and want to know how to get ahead of that curve.
I enjoy these conversations because typically, you can hear the excitement in the prospective analyst. This post is in no way looking to reduce the frequency of these conversations, but, since there a few points that I go over in every one of these calls, I thought it might be useful to post them for anyone who is interested and I haven't had a chance to speak with yet. My advice for these analysts generally has the following structure:
I like to present the following scenario to start these calls: Imagine I can offer you a position at one of the 32 NFL teams (or whatever league they are interested in working in), I won't tell you which team, but I will tell you that you will work 60+ hours a week. Much of that time will be doing analytic work of varying levels of sophistication, but a big chunk will also be spent driving people to the airport, taking notes in meetings, and any other job someone wants you to do. Oh, and the salary is $30,000 a year.
Do you want the job?
I can usually hear the pause as they think about it, which means they probably don't. Sometimes, I get an emphatic yes, and that is when I have an idea that I talking with someone who really wants this job. This scenario helps to open the eyes of every prospective analyst, so they really know what they are getting into.
This part is at least straightforward. You need all the statistical tools you can get, plus the more advanced your data management skills are the better. SQL is must these days but don't stop there. Good coding skills are a scarce resource so if you have them you'll have a leg up on all of the competition.
Think about who will be hiring you. Most likely you will have to interview with people who have extensive experience in the sport, but very little analytic training. These folks are very smart and know their sport much better than you do - I promise. Additionally, they have been extremely successful without you. What I would like to impress upon every budding analyst is that it is their responsibility to have the skills needed to explain their value in the language of their sport, not the language of statistics. This takes practice and there are no classes that I know of that teach this skill - the only way to get good at this part is to find people willing to talk to you and try - keeping the proper perspective of who you are talking to.
This is the part of my rant to budding analysts that is so rarely followed. My advice is to think about questions a coach or general manager would want to know the answer to - something they can practically use in decision making. Then try and answer the question with data. I suggest writing it up in two ways: 1) like a technical report that allows someone with a lot of analytical training to understand precisely what you did, and 2) write it up in one page so that a decision maker can clearly understand the insight provided.
The most common question I get back when making this suggestion is: What is a good question to work on? Answering that question of course, would completely defeat the purpose of the exercise. Being able to identify these types of questions, and think like the decision makers is an incredibly important skill that needs developing. Too often students believe that this exercise is a test of their technical skill, when it is truly a test of their ability to understand the value that they can add to a team.
Once an analyst has done a project like this, they have some evidence to show people like me that they have the needed skills (technical and otherwise) and commitment to the field. Having the one sheet description of a project like this available to give to decision makers either via email or at conferences will significantly help the analyst stand out from the crowd.
Overall, the number of opportunities in the field are growing every year as the data gets more and more prevalent and complex. There is also a real lack of talented analysts that are committed to being involved so any student who wants to get involved and has the ability to do good work, will likely find a position. I want the best talent to come work in sports analytics and I am happy to help those who really do want to be involved.