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Why Statistics and Sports Have Become the Perfect Team

Photo: Courtesy of Tim Gouw
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Stephanie Kovalchik

Data Scientist, Tennis Australia

Working within the sports industry is a dream for many, and even those whose talent with numbers surpasses their talent on the field can find a career in sports.

With the right set of technical skills, there are a wide range of options to work directly with a professional sports team, individual athletes, or an athletic organization. One area that has seen its growth skyrocket in popularity in recent years is sports analytics. 

By the numbers

Sports analytics has become the term of choice for using statistics — the science of learning from data — to tackle a host of challenging problems in high-performance sports. There are now numerous stories of sports organizations recruiting talented statistical minds to help them innovate. A college degree in statistics is a great way to open doors into this exciting new field and be a part of the ongoing wave of analytics in sports.  

Statistics is a rapidly growing field in the United States, with a projected growth rate of 34 percent between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With jobs in statistics on the rise, statisticians are in demand across almost every industry. In fact, “statistician” has been ranked among the most desirable careers in lists compiled by USA Today and U.S. News and World Report. 

The value of the statistics field has been increasingly recognized by sports organizations, especially in major team sports in North America, where nearly every club and league are making significant investments in statistical expertise. 

Just a decade ago, only a few professional teams had statisticians on staff, but the “Moneyball” revolution in sports made statistical talent a necessary part of a winning strategy. Today, statisticians and data scientists are helping coaches and managers make informed decisions about talent identification, player performance, training, and recovery. 

Making it digestable

A talent with numbers is only part of the equation. Success in sports analytics also requires the ability to communicate technical information in a non-technical way so it can have the most impact for coaches, players, and other stakeholders. Requiring strengths in sports knowledge, quantitative analysis, and communication makes the job of sports statistician one of the most unique in the statistics field. 

As the types and volume of data in sports grow, the demand for statisticians in sports will continue to rise and evolve. Tracking data — the detailed description of ball and player movement throughout a game — is a trending topic in sports analytics. Teams are increasingly looking to statisticians to unpack the insights that such rich data about the space and time dynamics of sports performance holds. Those who have the skills to discover those insights and integrate them into decision-making will be invaluable to the industry. 

The fast-paced and high-stakes environment of professional sports isn’t for everyone, but for the passionate and skilled statisticians who are up for the challenge, it can be a life-changing career choice.

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