Meet the data specialists
VP, league economics and strategy
Major League Baseball
Compiling a list of major initiatives in Major League Baseball over the past several years is a fairly straightforward
They’ve all emanated in large part from MLB’s department of league economics and strategy, which has taken a decidedly sharper focus on analytics over the past several years.
Morgan Sword, MLB vice president for league economics and strategy, has been baseball’s primary analytics figure helping shape each of those projects. Originally a management consultant with Oliver Wyman, Sword was brought in along with Chris Marinak, MLB senior vice president, as Commissioner Rob Manfred was seeking to build a more analytically focused in-house labor department.
That effort has only grown more complex in the seven years since as Sword now regularly performs multiyear statistical modeling of revenue-sharing formulas and extensive research into the state of the sport’s competitive balance, among many other efforts.
“Data has obviously grown more complicated, so that has required more sophisticated analysis,” said Sword, who studied economics at the University of Virginia, and later earned an MBA from Columbia University. “Labor policy, for example, has grown very data heavy. And it really takes at least a couple of years before any round of bargaining to get truly familiar with the issues at hand. Fortunately, data is also getting better and helping us answer more questions.”
— Eric Fisher
Associate athletic director for strategy and analytics
University of Texas
Juan Garcia loves nothing better than finding a key piece of information that becomes a predictor of the future.
During one fundraising campaign at the University of Texas, Garcia looked at a certain class of alumni and found that those with hunting licenses were more likely to donate to their school than those without a license.
“That’s when data becomes really exciting, when you can unlock something like that and find a correlation,” Garcia said. “Any time you can take a problem, apply some data to it and teach people something they didn’t know, that’s cool, that’s interesting.”
Garcia was helping Texas’ school of geology raise money about eight years ago when he found the correlation between hunting licenses and giving. He went on to work as a fundraiser at Arizona State and Wake Forest before the Longhorns brought him back last year, this time as an associate athletic director for strategy and analytics, making Garcia one of the first data and analytics experts to work in an athletic department in the country.
He’s now applying those same data-gathering techniques and using them to help the Longhorns sell more tickets and raise more money.
“The better we can understand our fans, the better understanding we might have of what the future holds,” Garcia said.
Garcia, who came out of Purdue with an industrial engineering degree, believes the use of big data and analytics among university athletic departments is about five years or more behind the fundraising techniques used on other parts of campus. But athletic directors are beginning to apply more resources to data collection, which Garcia says will make athletic departments smarter and more efficient when targeting alumni for gifts.
“In athletics, we’re starting to understand the need for this and invest in it,” said Garcia, who participates in regular calls about data and analytics with officials from eight to 10 other schools to talk best practices. “We’re at the very beginning of that stage.”
— Michael Smith
Executive VP, global insights group
Keith Friedenberg stumbled into data analytics as a college intern working for Chuck Barris, the producer of wacky
It was the 1980s and Friedenberg, now executive vice president of WME-IMG’s global insights group, was doing things like cruising Venice Beach in search of attractive women to appear on “The Dating Game.”
One day, Barris-Guber-Peters, his old employer and a firm no longer in existence, needed help compiling ratings.
One thing led to another, and Friedenberg, who later graduated with a marketing degree from USC, found himself pulled in the direction of analytics. He worked in media research for Disney and Warner Bros. prior to joining WME in 2008.
“Peering under the hood of human behavior, to me, is fascinating,” Friedenberg said. “Each consumer has a certain type of journey they take. Each one is unique, their motivations, their passion points, are all intrinsic to who they are. You never solve the puzzle … but try to get better at it, more efficient at it and more impactful with it.”
In sports, Friedenberg’s group studies ROI for brands and properties tied to IMG College. The process has grown more sophisticated in unlocking the value of the relationships between brands and sports.
“It’s one thing to say sports is great for brands,” Friedenberg said. “But you’ve got to peel the onion a little bit and really get into the weeds of it and sort of see where are those passion points and how can we leverage them to optimize that relationship.”
After about 25 years of being immersed in big data, Friedenberg’s crystal ball sees a closer connection occurring between internal business intelligence and external consumer analytics.
“Many of the properties or brands we work with are tracking their own product sales, looking at where the levers can be pulled up and down,” he said. “But when you marry [both forms of research] it’s a powerful combo … some smart learnings come out of that.”
— Don Muret
VP, insights and strategy
There were quite a few moments that made Jeff Meeson realize he would relish a career that combined math,
While a freshman at Mercyhurst University, Meeson was given an assignment for his honors-level statistics course, and though the details of what exactly was being asked of him in the project have since eluded his memory, his method of solving the task at hand has not.
“I used Tecmo Super Bowl on Nintendo,” said Meeson, who now works as Octagon’s vice president of insights and strategy. “I simulated different statistical categories based on the weather conditions that you could set the game to play with.”
Meeson graduated with a B.A. in business administration and broke into the sports industry with entry-level minor league baseball positions before ultimately heading back to school and receiving his master’s degree in education from Bowling Green State University. From there, he managed research programs for Joyce Julius & Associates, and in 2008, joined Octagon.
He now oversees a team of nine staffers who provide research for clients such as developing a target consumer, developing activation strategies and measuring returns.
“I think I would struggle to work outside of sports and entertainment within my specific discipline, and on the flip side of that, I also think I would struggle to work in sports without the research and analytics component,” he said.
“It’s kind of the yin and the yang.”
— Charlie Frankel
VP, team marketing, business operations
As vice president of team marketing and business operations for the NBA, Jordan Solomon is one of the league’s go-to analytics executives.
Want to run a sophisticated regression model tracking the spending patterns of fans sitting in the first 12 rows
It is Solomon’s job to develop, collect and interpret all types of leaguewide data to help teams expand their business operations. Pricing, retention, lead scoring and spending analysis are just some of the ways he uses analytics.
“It is not just gathering data, but how to best understand it and visualize it,” Solomon said. “We view the communication of these insights to implement strategies across the league.”
Solomon is a Boston native who earned an economics degree from the University of Wisconsin, an MBA from Dartmouth, and a master’s of public administration from Harvard.
Solomon’s first job after college was working for a venture capital group in Silicon Valley in 2000, just weeks before the Internet industry bubble burst.
“It was the worst timing,” he said. “The ‘go-go’ days were over but I was able to build relationships across the industry.”
After earning his advanced degrees and then working for McKinsey & Co., Solomon joined the NBA last year, where he is now a key player in data-driven business applications.
Solomon said that the use of business analytics is relatively new in sports compared to other industries but already he is setting his sights on the future use of analytics.
“Where I see opportunity is to encourage our teams to gather the 360-degree view of the fan,” he said. “The ways we integrate fantasy games and customize fan experiences are going to be terrific ways to build on what we have already done.”
— John Lombardo