In 2002, the Oakland Athletics—A’s for short—was a struggling baseball team that lacked the resources of most major franchises. Many of the team’s talented players left for more lucrative positions, yet where there should have been severe losses, the A's continued to strengthen as a team. The reason? Statistics. The team had a group of statisticians analyze and evaluate players in non-traditional ways, primarily employing mathematical models. What happened became the basis for the book Moneyball, and highlighted the potential for rigorous statistical approaches in sports.
Statistics and Sports
The use of statistics in sports certainly isn’t new; baseball, for example, has made use of batting and earned-run averages. However, as the ability to collect data has improved, so has the ability to leverage it. Today, the statistics applied are more sophisticated. One example of newer analyses per Baseball-Reference is defense-independent pitching statistics. These statistics are used to more precisely evaluate a pitcher's performance. Sports Illustrated noted that analytics in a sport such as football is widely used to manage injury prevention. Basketball coaches make use of statistics such as field-goal attempts, effective field goal percentage, free throw attempts, and free throw percentages. The Liverpool soccer team experienced success when a statistician used predictive modeling for various purposes, such as comparing the team’s chances to score a shot (before any action being taken) verses when an action was taken. This comparison was used to quantify the player impact.
The use of actual statisticians and techniques such as mathematical modeling means going from the use of past practices or instincts in decision-making to decisions made given evidence. The statisticians might be recording data in real-time. These recorders include individuals like Marty Aronoff, known as a “talent statistician” who collects data on the plays as they occur, spotting trends that can change the arc of the game. They can also be found in the front office, creating models to evaluate player performance. Models are often used in player recruitment, analyzing what attributes a player possesses, and how those traits would fit in the team for the most possible wins. Given the extensive proliferation of data now available, it is critical to bring in an individual with dedicated statistical training. Such an individual would not only be able to make sense of the data but know how to put it to its best use.
Statistician Jobs in Sports
Opportunities are emerging for statisticians interested in a career that combines a love of sports with an aptitude for math and analytics. These opportunities can vary; the American Statistical Society mentions the following statistic jobs in sports:
- Team Statistician (event recorders like Marty Aronoff)
- Independent Statistical Consultants
- World Tour Statistician (reporting on sports results from across the globe)
Opportunities also exist in sports marketing; any marketing organization benefits significantly from having an on-site statistician to ensure the success of sports marketing campaigns. A look for current sports statistics jobs in the popular employment search engine Indeed revealed the following two opportunities as an example:
Senior Quantitative Analyst – Football Operations (for a national team)
Degree in a relevant field (statistics)
Data visualization skills
Experience using statistical software
Passion for football
Basketball Operations Analyst (national team)
Improve information infrastructure
Front Office Strategy
Real-world, foundational data analysis experience
Ability to identify trends and competitive advantages
In terms of qualifications, job listing generally includes programming experience (such as SQL) in addition to knowledge of analytical and statistical techniques.
How Much Does a Sports Statistician Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a statistician is $87,780. Jobs in statistics are projected to grow by 30% from 2018 to 2028 (much faster than average for most occupations). Like many professions, in sports statistics, the more advanced your degree and related experience, the higher the salary.
How to Become a Sports Statistician
Career Igniter lists the following qualifications (among others) that are needed to succeed as a sports statistician:
- Math oriented
- Problem solver
- Skilled communicator (particularly for informing diverse audiences)
- Analytical education and training
- A love for sports
Education Needed to Become a Sports Statistician
Most of the higher level, full-time positions call for a master's degree in statistics. This is understandable, given the rigor of the job and the strong need for accuracy. This wouldn't just be for the sake of winning games, but also for the purpose of player safety (where such analyses are used to understand sports-related injuries and how to best prevent them). A degree in applied statistics would be beneficial in this regard. A robust program in applied statistics should include:
- Advanced statistical methods
- Programming and technology
- Problem-solving using real-world examples and scenarios
Michigan Technological University’s Masters in Statistics Online contains all those components. The robust program is entirely online and accelerated – so you could start your career as a sports statistician sooner rather than later.