SBJ/Oct. 12-18, 2015/In Depth

Analyze this!

The ideas, insights and individuals driving the data explosion in sports

When Valerie Camillo came out of the University of Virginia with an undergraduate business degree, she investigated careers in sports. She found that most of the opportunities were in sales, an avenue she didn’t want to pursue.

So Camillo went the traditional business route, landing in financial management consulting. She added an MBA from UVA’s Darden School of Business and rose to principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. On the verge of the chance to buy in as a partner, she decided to give sports one last sniff.

Valerie Camillo built a staff of analytics experts at the Washington Nationals.
Photo by: Washington Nationals
Camillo thought the skills she developed in 15 years of consulting would be valuable at a sports franchise, but she didn’t know the landscape well enough to be sure of how.

So she turned to her network from business school, which eventually pointed her to Chris Granger, who then ran the NBA’s team marketing and business operations division.

“Nobody else I spoke to was able to find the translation point between what I was doing and a place in senior management at a team,” Camillo said. “[Granger] got it right away.”

The NBA saw TMBO as a consultancy. Granger figured Camillo would catch on to the nuances of sports teams once she was exposed to them. As a senior vice president at TMBO, she led the department’s strategy and analytics group, supporting NBA teams with financial, marketing, customer and predictive analytics. She soon added oversight of ticket sales and service, sponsorships and digital marketing.

When she heard her hometown baseball team, the Washington Nationals, was searching for a chief revenue and marketing officer, Camillo saw the chance to take the sort of sports job she had always envisioned.

While the Nationals utilized advanced analytics on the baseball side, Camillo found they put few resources into it on the business side. She set out to change that.

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Bit by bit, Camillo built a free-standing department that now includes six staff members and three interns who provide services across departments. Two came with MBAs from University of Chicago Booth School of Business and George Washington University. Another came from Princeton.

“We did it incrementally,” Camillo said. “We started to put business cases in front of ownership for everything we were doing, and as things were approved and were successful and made money, they wanted to see more business cases and said yes to more things.

“We don’t make one business decision, not one significant business decision, that does not run through that team.
There is always an analytical component. From ticket strategy to corporate partner proposals to decisions around food and beverage to what we’re thinking about doing with our retail floor. It really has transformed every facet of how we do business at the Nationals.”

It has been a dozen years since the publication of the best-seller “Moneyball,” and four years since the release of the film by the same name. During that span, most MLB franchises have added skilled analysts, software developers and engineers to their baseball operations departments.

NBA, NHL and NFL teams also have made strides, increasingly mining statistics and trends for an advantage over their opponents in player evaluation, strategy or both. And many of the large companies that service teams, such as Ticketmaster, Aramark and Levy Restaurants, have built sizable analytics divisions.

But, while scouts and coaches were making space in their war rooms for data jockeys from Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley and MIT, most franchises remained devoid of such skills on the business side.

It took a while, but those charged with making the money for franchises have begun to catch up with those who spend it, driven by an increasing reliance on data to make a range of decisions spanning most departments.

There are now at least 54 people working full time on business analytics at MLB franchises, based on a review of team staff listings, with some clubs employing as many as five. At least 33 of those were hired since 2012, with 19 coming since the start of 2014.

In the NBA, which recommends that each team create a strategy and analytics department, teams employ at least 71 people in analytics-oriented jobs on the business side. Only 13 of those were hired before 2011, with 38 coming on since the start of 2013.

Not only has analytics offered a road into sports for those who otherwise might not have found one, allowing data-minded candidates to land jobs at teams without going the sales route, it also often has led to rapid advancement.

After four years as an analyst in investment banking, Vince Ircandia went to USC to earn an MBA, hoping to find a way into sports. He interned with the Los Angeles Kings and after graduating in 2011 was hired as manager of business operations and analytics. Less than two years later, he moved to the Portland Trail Blazers as vice president of business analytics. In January, he was promoted to senior vice president of business operations.

“I’ve always thought of myself as taking an atypical road into sports,” Ircandia said. “But I realize now that it’s becoming less and less atypical, because I see so many people around who are a lot like me.”

■ ■ ■

After three years as a rarely used left-handed reliever at the University of California, Berkeley, Andrew Miller was still interested enough in making sports his career that he took an internship on the business side of the Oakland A’s after his junior year. But when he graduated, he wanted to see what life was like outside baseball and embarked on a career in investment banking.

He started on Wall Street and ended up in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. When the market went bust, he headed back to business school, earning a J.D.-MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. He planned to join a private equity firm, armed with both investment experience and a deep understanding of business law.

Andrew Miller (second from right) speaks with members of the strategy and business    analytics team at the Cleveland Indians. Shown with him from left to right are Laura Carver, Christy Corfias, Gabe Gershenfeld and Jeff Wilen.
Photo by: Dan Mendlik / Cleveland Indians
Then he thought about the impact of the book “Moneyball.”

“I realized not only was this happening under my nose down the hall while I was interning there,” Miller said, “but the entire industry had really changed and the background I had may have been an even better fit than what I had as an undergrad.”

Miller contacted a few people he knew in baseball, asking where he might fit best. One suggested that he call Chris Antonetti, a University of Massachusetts Amherst sports management grad who was assistant general manager with the Cleveland Indians. A week later they talked. A month later, Miller was interning in baseball operations with the Indians. That turned into a job. He was on the general manager’s track.

But while in baseball operations, Miller often was tapped to take on responsibilities beyond the typical evaluations of players, contracts and strategy. He worked extensively on development of the spring training complex the Indians would share with the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Ariz.

When Indians general manager Mark Shapiro was promoted to team president after the 2010 season, he tapped Miller to join him as his assistant.

“Mark was looking for someone to help him learn the business, looking to understand all facets of the franchise, not to just focus on baseball,” Miller said. “Who are our fans? What goes into ticket pricing? What about our branding? He was expanding his focus and he wanted someone to help.”

Like most MLB franchises, the Indians were much further along on mining data to make decisions on the baseball
side than on the business side. With the rare elevation of a baseball executive to head the entire franchise came the opportunity to migrate some elements of each side to the other.

“When we started to look at the business side, we thought, ‘How do we replicate what’s working on the baseball side across the business,” Miller said. “Two things we highlighted were data analytics and our hiring.”

The Indians had great success recruiting talented analysts on the baseball side in part thanks to a well-regarded internship program that attracted smart people to baseball operations. Shapiro and Miller thought they could do the same on the business side by creating an executive fellowship program.

The first product of the program, Jeff Wilen, came to the franchise out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School MBA program. The next, Gabe Gershenfeld, came from Cornell. Taylor Foster came from Harvard. All three still are with the franchise.

“A few years ago, we were told we’d never be able to attract that sort of talent to the business side,” Miller said. “What we’ve seen is that that is completely wrong.

“We make it clear that we want to find people who can be future leaders and expose them to projects and to leadership. You’re not going to be in the back office getting people coffee and lunch. It has been extremely successful. All kinds of talented people are willing to come here and pass up other options out of sports.

“For years, what we had in sports was this one program, all about sales, where you go into that room and dial 100 times a day and whoever comes out with the most money gets a full-time job. We want to change that model.”

Among the more interesting aspects of the emerging emphasis on analytics across sports is the fact that those on the sports side typically caught on long before those on the business side.

The Indians went from mining data for baseball operations to exploring how the technology could help all facets of the business side, from ticketing to sponsor activation.
Photo by: Getty Images
When the Houston Astros hired former McKinsey consultant Jeff Luhnow as general manager four year ago, they were following a familiar trend. Luhnow had brought an analytics mindset to the Cardinals scouting department.
With the Astros, he was empowered to go even further. His baseball operations department includes a former NASA biomathematician as director of decision sciences and a medical risk manager with an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

But when Mike Dillon left Bain & Co. to join the Astros as vice president of strategy and analytics in the summer of 2012, bringing with him a triumvirate of Harvard degrees — undergrad, business school and law — he found the business side lagging far behind in the area he was hired to build.

“We really didn’t have anything,” Dillon said. “We didn’t have CRM. We didn’t have the capability to do fan surveys. There wasn’t much forecasting done around attendance. It’s been a lot of fun to build the team and help build the tools.”

Dillon’s department has grown to five, including a director he hired out of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, known for hosting the now ubiquitous sports analytics conference.

“We’re in a fortunate situation here, because data-driven decision-making as a whole is broadly accepted across the organization,” Dillon said. “People ask for data. It may have started on the baseball side, but now it’s pretty much everywhere. That’s a nice place to be.”

The San Diego Padres are another MLB franchise with an interesting analytics origin story on the business side. When the club hired its first vice president of strategy and business analysis, it looked to the Cardinals’ baseball operations department, hiring away assistant manager John Abbamondi, who came with degrees from MIT and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, along with 40 Navy combat missions over Iraq.

When Abbamondi left for the NBA’s TMBO in 2012 and the two analysts he had hired departed shortly thereafter, the Padres hired a young Harvard MBA, Ryan Gustafson, who had interned with them and then worked for a year at MLB, to restart the department.

■ ■ ■

Anthony Perez joined the Orlando Magic in his first job out of college, assisting the team as it worked to secure funding for a new arena. With that project completed, he parlayed the connections he made into a job in investment banking with Goldman Sachs.

After a year with Goldman, he realized he preferred working for a franchise. In 2008, he returned to the Magic as a business analyst, again in finance, this time focused on the $100 million loan that would cover the team’s investment in the arena project. Creating projections for revenue in the new building required him to look at streams from most departments. When he dove into ticketing, he went beyond the basic projections needed for the project and began to play around with the numbers.

“I started applying a lot of the things I did with modeling at Goldman to tickets,” said Perez, now executive vice president of strategy for the Magic. “It was really sort of a side project. But it got me looking at how we could use analytics in ticket pricing, and then it grew from there.”

That side project would grow into a focus area. The Magic sent him off to create a department. He hired an analyst to work on tickets. When the Magic signed on to use data management and analytics tools from SAS in 2010, that necessitated more hires.

Today, the Magic has a staff of 14 in the department; seven of whom work exclusively in business analytics and seven who rely heavily on analytics in their roles in the franchise’s digital marketing operation.

An example of their work: the creation of automated emails, customized to various fan segments, triggered by specific behaviors.

“It’s been an interesting evolution,” Perez said, pointing to the addition of functions such as email and digital marketing and social media to the department. “We have predictive models that will decide what emails to send based on what an individual fan is most likely to respond to. Now we’re trying to bring that same level of personalization to all our channels.”

The last two analysts hired into the department: One had a dual master’s in engineering and statistics; the other a master’s in information technology and business intelligence.

All the hires the Magic has made in the department have come from outside of sports, Perez said.

“That’s not intentional,” he said. “But when we found people who had the skills we were looking for, it didn’t matter to us where they were doing that. It mattered what they were doing. There has definitely been that view historically that you have to take a sales job to get your foot in the door. I don’t think that holds so much any more.
You can work somewhere else and absolutely there will be an opportunity to work in sports at some point if you develop the skills.

“These jobs are just growing. It’s an area teams are going to continue to build out.”

So clear is the need that when the University of South Florida was looking for areas in which it could distinguish its new sports MBA program, it identified analytics, which it had already set as a priority across the business school.
The curriculum at USF includes what its creators believe was the nation’s first sports business analytics class.

“We’ve had great luck placing students — so much so that if we had a few more people who had gone that route we could have placed them, too,” said Mike Mondello, the associate professor who built and teaches the course. “It’s all so new, relatively. Eight or 10 years ago, a class like the one I’m teaching didn’t exist. Even three years ago, if someone offered it, it was focused on the player side.

“It makes sense to teach the skills that lead to jobs. And the jobs are out there, that’s for sure.”

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