Sports Analytics: Changing the Game at WSBS

The inaugural Wharton Sports Business Summit featured an intriguing discussion among individuals involved in bringing Moneyball to life in their respective professions and sports, through advanced data analytics. Dr. Case Massey, a Practice Professor in the Wharton School’s Operations, Information and Decision Department as well as the co-host of “Wharton Moneyball” on SiriusXM's Business Radio, led the panel and guided the discussion. Alec Halaby, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Vice President of football operations, also sat in the panel, providing his insight into analytics from a football perspective. Baseball was represented by Andy Galdi, part of the baseball operations department for the Philadelphia Phillies, and Samuel Mondry-Cohen (a 2010 Penn graduate), who leads the Washington Nationals’ front office’s analysis of baseball data. Finally, Brian Josephs, the leader of sales and account management at Sportsradar, brought a unique business analytics background to what was a colorful panel.

 

The panelists began by discussing their recent activity, and trying to provide the audience with an idea of what their professional lives normally look like. Halaby talked about the prior week being a special week because of the NFL trade deadline during which the Eagles made a big move by acquiring Jay Ajayi from the Miami Dolphins. As a result, his week was busier than usual. Halaby went deeper into deadline activity, talking about the significant difference between trade discussions and actual transactions in terms of quantity. His role in trade activity is to provide team personnel with statistical information about players being traded or acquired and how analytics models predict the impact of any given trade. Ultimately, however, it is up to the team’s owner and general manager to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. Halaby also observed that more NFL teams are getting involved in trade deadline discussions than ever before.

 

Mondry-Cohen and Galdi had similar weeks, mainly because their respective teams hired new managers during that time span. For Mondry-Cohen, a manager who was willing use predictive models was an ideal one. Since his interactions are mostly with coaches, not players, this makes sense from a person coming from a numbers background. Of course, this is not the same criteria that the personnel in charge of such such decisions usually follow. However, the analytics team does get to at least provide their opinion. Galdi has detected varying levels of skepticism towards analytics among managers and coaches and also seemed to prefer a coaching staff that was open to applying analytics to the on-field product. Josephs’ activity was the most unique among the panelists. He recently met with Facebook, Sports Illustrated, Sony, DraftKings, and Amazon to discuss potential venues these companies could take to increase their exposure through sports.

 

The panel then moved to a discussion on proprietary versus public data when it comes to sports. In Galdi’s view, scouting reports and information each team collects based on its own methods is usually confidential. StatCast data, on the other hand, is mostly open to the public. Interestingly, teams are interested more and more in buying data on collegiate and high school players, though the latter is extremely hard to obtain. Halaby echoed a similar sentiment, talking about how NFL teams are more aggressive in buying new data sets, especially when it comes to high school data (usually track and field or conditioning times). In addition, the Eagles has a Sports Science staff that is dedicated to listening to sellers and determining whether the product is useful enough for the team to invest in. 

 

Next, the panelists talked about industry trends moving forward. Mondry-Cohen has noticed a rapid rise in player wearables that obtain real-time data. He also questioned the value of virtual reality, at least in its current form, as it relates to player training. Interestingly, he observed that players are skeptical of these new data advances, believing that teams will utilize these tools against them in order to pay them less moving forward. Galdi brought up the idea of “First Mover Advantage” when it comes to baseball analytics. Teams are more and more willing to risk investment in this sector in order to be at the forefront of analytics. The Tampa Bay Rays are the prime example of this concept. Josephs then talked about the bigger picture of data. For him, there is an immense amount of data already there, but we do not have the tools to analyze all of it yet, and until that happens, much of it will be useless. He also recommended investing in artificial intelligence to automatically analyze the data moving forward.

 

Finally, each of the panelists provided their insight into breaking into the sports industry and career recommendations. Mondry-Cohen looks for evaluation skills among entry-level applicants, not data generation skills. After all, we have more data than we can use already. He also mentioned programming as one of the prerequisites to any job, specifically in SQL. In terms of personal skills, he mentioned trust as a key factor in hiring employees. Galdi had similar points to Mondry-Cohen, but he also mentioned R programming as another crucial skill he looks for in potential hires. From a non-analytical perspective, he thinks that employees must have an innate intellectual curiosity and a demonstrated ability to learn quickly. 

 

Halaby mentioned specific criteria he looks for in a resume or interview. Potential analysts’ summer internships and activity is critical as he evaluates their abilities. They also have to be familiar with literature in the field. Halaby prefers that applicants be focused in one sport and have gone deep into it. In terms of interpersonal skills, Halaby said he was willing to look past subpar social skills if it meant he was able to hire an individual with superior technical expertise. This is especially the case with entry-level positions. Josephs, coming from a business background, focused more on interpersonal skills. To him, connecting with people is the most important factor in determining one’s success; no one expects an entry-level analyst to be a world beater. 

 

Overall, the panelists provided an engaging discussion by mixing anecdotes about their experience with career advice. Those who attended the panels received an excellent crash course on how sports analytics have changed the sport and how they can get involved in the Moneyball revolution moving forward. 
 

 

Uday Tripathi
USBC Journal Writer
Class of 2021