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SBD/November 20, 2013/People and Pop CulturePrint All
In the last 10 years, the role of statistical analysis in the NBA has been growing, and Suns VP/Business Planning & Basketball Analytics ZAHEER BENJAMIN is right in the middle of it. An MIT grad and former pharmaceutical industry analyst with Pfizer, the 36-year-old decided to put his talents to use in the sports world. After initially joining the Magic, Benjamin headed west and is now in his third year with the Suns. He recently caught up with THE DAILY and talked about the structure of the Suns' analytics department, his daily media habits and his recent affinity for HGTV.
No background necessary...
Nothing beyond playing pickup (basketball). I studied computer science as an undergraduate and then I got my MBA from MIT and when I was there I sort of got the data mining and the statistical analysis bug. After I got my MBA I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a couple of years, I worked for Pfizer doing stuff like sales forecasting, customer segmentation and targeting. I liked that kind of stuff, but I wanted to apply it to something I was really passionate about, which was professional basketball.
Turning point in NBA analytics...
I think "MONEYBALL" was pretty influential, I think there's just been a greater appetite in recent years. You're seeing exponential growth in applying analytic to sports, and you'll continue to see more of that.
SportVU data, which is optical tracking data that all NBA teams have access to this year, is one of the first big challenges for the industry. There's going to be a lot of innovation required to get our arms around how to best store, access and analyze that data. I think it's a bit of an arms race right now. Trying to look for new data sources and new ways to analyze it. Any way to get an edge.
Structure with the Suns...
We're a fairly lean staff, in the single digits in terms of analysts. We serve as sort of a centralized resource for the entire organization. One of our biggest challenges is figuring out how we prioritize our time. It's looking for people with consulting skills but also someone who has the ability to do rigorous data analysis.
Morning media moves...
I start on my phone, I follow a lot of different sports writers on Twitter. That's probably the first place I check. I'm also a newspaper guy -- online of course. I enjoy the New York Times, one of the first things I read. I like to look at things that are going on in other industries and trying to look at ways we can apply those practices to the sports industry. I tend to be fairly broad in my consumption of industry news.
In the app store...
I'd say Twitter is the one I use the most. I think it's the best source for breaking news -- it's a good way to stay plugged in. I think LinkedIn also is quite good for staying in touch with professional colleagues.
There's a great food scene here in Phoenix. The place I like to frequent -- we have food truck Fridays here in downtown Phoenix and I like going there. Always a good spot to try a lot of different cuisines.
On the tube...
I'm a big "GAME OF THRONES" fan, eager for that to start up again. My wife and I recently purchased our first place, so I'm big into home improvement shows as well. A lot of HGTV. "HOLMES ON HOMES" we watch a good bit.
Circuit of the Americas President & CEO STEVE SEXTON is leaving the position, and will be succeeded as CEO by COTA President JASON DIAL. Sexton held the role for three years and in a statement said that his decision to leave "was a tough one," but he is looking forward to "spending time with his family." Sexton previously spent nine years at Churchill Downs Inc. (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/19).
EXECS: The 76ers named former NBA Team Marketing & Business Operations Manager RAVI SHAH VP/Strategy. He will report to Chief Revenue Officer CHRIS HECK (76ers). Shah will be responsible for "overall business development and analytics strategies for team sponsorships, ticket sales, premium seating and growth initiatives" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/19).....The NBA named Suns Senior VP/Sales & Service JEFF IANELLO VP/Team Marketing & Business Operations (THE DAILY)....WWE named MATTHEW SINGERMAN to the newly-created position of Exec VP/Programming. He will report directly to WWE Chair & CEO VINCE MCMAHON (WWE)....IMG College promoted Gamecock IMG Sports Marketing GM LIZ MCMILLAN to Gamecock IMG Sports Network Exec Dir (IMG)....Sponsorship and brand agency Advantage Int'l named Publicis N.Y. account exec JAMIE LEE Account Dir in its L.A. office (Advantage)....Stony Brook Univ. AD JIM FIORE was "relieved of his duties" early yesterday. It is a "surprising move considering the recent expansion and success of the program." SBU "bought out the remaining 31 months of his contract" for a total of nearly $800,000 (NEWSDAY, 11/20)....The Single-A California League Stockton Ports promoted TIM POLLACK to Dir of Tickets (Ports)....Miami-based WAXY-AM/FM has "fired program director TOD CASTLEBERRY, who joined the station" in March '12 (MIAMIHERALD.com, 11/19).
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Nike yesterday announced that it "supports the Freedom to Marry and Religious Protection Initiative in Oregon, and that the company has created the Nike Equality PAC, a foundation to raise money in support of marriage equality." The PAC "begins with $280,000: A $100,000 contribution from Nike and another $180,000" from Nike execs. Nike Equality PAC "will work with Oregon United for Marriage ... on how best to support the initiative and spend PAC money." Nike Global Government & Public Affairs Senior Dir JULIA BRIM-EDWARDS will be the PAC's director and will provide "oversight for the funds" (Portland OREGONIAN, 11/20).
CHARITY STRIPE: Seven active and alumni Bears players yesterday visited Coal City, Ill., and Diamond, Ill., to "help the Red Cross' relief efforts and raise awareness following the EF-2 tornado touchdown" on Sunday. Bears fan LENNY FRIDDLE said, "It makes you feel good that somebody of their caliber can come down and take time out of their schedule to help us" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 11/20)....Members of the Cowboys yesterday served a Thanksgiving Day meal in Ft. Worth at the Salvation Army (FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM, 11/20).
NAMES: Actors JIMMY FALLON and TRACY MORGAN were in attendance on Saturday at actor DENIS LEARY and Bruins President CAM NEELY's 19th annual Comics Come Home event, which benefits the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care (BOSTON GLOBE, 11/18)....Canucks Owner the AQUILINI family was ranked 13th on Vancouver Magazine's "Power 50 2013" list (VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, 11/19 issue)....Harness Horsemen Int’l named the Bergen Record’s JOHN BRENNAN the winner of the ’13 Clyde Hirt Media Award (NORTHJERSEY.com, 11/19)….Fordham Prep high school in the Bronx renamed its basketball court the Donnie Walsh Court in honor of Pacers President of Basketball Operations DONNIE WALSH, who graduated from the school (ESPN.com, 11/19)….The ’14 Special Olympics USA Games named New Jersey Gov. CHRIS CHRISTIE Honorary Chair (Special Olympics)….49ers S DONTE WHITNER “withdrew his application to drop the ‘W’ from his surname” (MERCURYNEWS.com, 11/19)….Lakers F PAU GASOL in his new book called “LIFE • VIDA” “reveals intimate details of his life, one that extends far beyond the basketball court” (OCREGISTER.com, 11/19)….Former NFLer BO JACKSON is “scheduled to light the AL DAVIS ceremonial torch” before the Titans-Raiders game on Sunday (MERCURYNEWS.com, 11/19)….Trail Blazers and Seahawks Owner PAUL ALLEN paid $27M for a 22,000-square-foot mansion in Atherton, Calif. (BIZJOURNALS.com, 11/19).