Athletics by the Numbers: How Can Data Analysts Help with Sports?

For most of Major League Baseball’s existence, there were only a few statistics that writers, managers, and owners cared about: batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBI) for players, and wins and earned run average (ERA, or the approximate number of runs allowed every nine innings) for pitchers. They judged the best hitters by how many home runs they slugged and how many runs they drove in, and they determined the best pitchers by how few runs they allowed. That was it, from the early 1900s all the way to the early 2000s. Once front offices brought in big data, the sport changed completely. Now, the conversations are about on-base percentage plus slugging (OPS), wins above replacement (WAR), win probability added (WPA), fielding independent pitching (FIP), and many other statistics that better assess a player’s value.

Baseball is not the only sport using big data analytics in the 21st century. Business executives and operations professionals across sports are embracing the analytics revolution to streamline their businesses and increase profits –– and often wins, too. Continue reading to learn more about analytics in this field, including how data analytics helps in sports, its impact on different aspects of the sports world, and how you can help a sports franchise use analytics to get ahead of the competition.

A soccer team’s data analyst reviews statistics.

The Moneyball Revolution

A few decades before the turn of the 21st century, analytics and baseball started to mesh. Founded in 1971, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) gave birth to the movement now known as “sabermetrics,” a term coined by Bill James, the movement’s most prominent voice. Throughout the latter part of the 1900s, SABR researchers refined the statistics already used in baseball and developed their own algorithms to calculate more complex ones.

These professionals were scorned by the establishment at first, but their methods slowly took hold. The turning point was in 2002, when the Oakland Athletics, under the direction of general manager Billy Beane, embraced data analytics and surprised many with a successful season despite a roster of castoffs. Michael Lewis’ 2003 novel Moneyball, chronicling Oakland’s season and its use of analytics, launched sabermetrics into the public consciousness and showed that analytics-based strategies can work in the sports world. Since then, sports teams in many leagues have established a data analytics department, hiring some of the brightest minds in the field to improve their operations.

Explore the Impact of Analytics

Data analysts help in sports in many different ways. All across the landscape, these number-savvy professionals have changed how sports management personnel approach business. Not only on the field but also around the office and even in the medical tent, sports teams find a way to utilize big data.

On-Field Performance

Different types of sports franchises and athletes use data analytics to improve their on-court or on-field performance. Tennis players might track their reaction time, or a football team could use analytics to discover which type of play is best to run in certain situations. Soccer teams could use data analytics and advanced camera systems to track the movements of every player on the pitch, determining who uses their movements most efficiently, who’s completing the best passes, and who has the most positive impact on possession.

Healthcare and Rehabilitation

At the intersection of healthcare, athletics, and technology are several devices that help monitor athlete health and vital statistics, as well as programs that compile all those data points and identify areas of concern. For example, heart monitors track and plot each player’s heart rate throughout a practice, workout, or game. Heart and brain health are two of the prevailing areas where sports franchises use data analytics. Professionals also use devices such as FitBits to track various data points.

The Business of Sports

Sports business professionals often use data to drive ticket sales, increase fan engagement, and better understand the failures and successes of their marketing efforts. For example, marketing executives might track how jersey and merchandise sales relate to wins and then adjust prices to maximize consumer interest and spending at games. In addition to this sort of application, a ticket executive who analyzes what parts of a stadium or arena are most popular for seating might run promotions to sell less popular spots, bringing in additional revenue.

Dive into Data Analytics with Maryville

What can data analysts help with in sports? Quite a lot. If you have an interest in sports and how numbers can strengthen a team’s success, pursuing a career in this field might prove to be a good fit. Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Sport Business Management, available with a concentration in sports data analytics, can help you understand what it takes to succeed in the modern sports business landscape.

Recommended Reading

Business Data Analytics: The Information Revolution

The Future of Big Data in Business: Using Data Analytics to Provide Insight

The Future of Data Science and Important Skills for Data Scientists


BizTech Magazine, “How Data Analytics is Revolutionizing Sports”

CIO, “8 Ways Big Data and Analytics Will Change Sports”

Forbes, “How Data Analysis in Sports Is Changing the Game”

Maryville University, Rawlings Sport Business Management Online Bachelor’s Degree

Society for American Baseball Research, The SABR Story

SAS, Sports Analytics

SD Times, “How Sports Performance Analytics Can Help Technology Organizations Win the Game”

Society for American Baseball Research, “A Guide to Sabermetric Research”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Interview with a Sports Statistical Analyst

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