Some 15 people showed up to the first meeting for the U of T Sports Analytics Group. Meeting every two weeks at the St. George campus and advised by professor Timothy Chan, UTSPAN aims to unite sports fans and statistics fans to conduct original research in the field of sports analytics.
Popularized by the book and subsequent movie Moneyball, the field of sports analytics is a rapidly growing but still relatively new field. Sports analytics attempts to apply mathematics, analytics, and statistics to the field of sports.
It has seen an explosive growth in popularity in the last few years and no longer is an obscure topic discussed only by hardcore fantasy sports fans. Analytics is everywhere in the world of sports today. Advanced analytical concepts have been integrated everywhere, including TV broadcasts, player development, and playing strategies. Even baseball cards have been adapted with a focus on advanced statistics.
In this day and age, every sports fan needs to have at least a basic understanding of sports analytics, and introducing sports fans to the basic concepts is one of UTSPAN’s goals. Every meeting, there will be presentations on a poorly understood topic in sports analytics. For instance, next week there will be a presentation on sports gambling, what the odds say about public opinion and implicit probabilities, and how spreads work.
Co-founder of UTSPAN Valentin Stolbunov was surprised that a club like this did not already exist at U of T. “I was interested in sports analytics for a while but only started playing with data myself after seeing some of the cool work being done in soccer analytics during the 2014 FIFA World Cup,” he says. “I actually expected a sports analytics group to already exist at U of T and looked for one, hoping to connect and work with anyone who shared my interest. When I realized that a group didn’t exist yet, I decided to start one myself.”
Another of the group’s goals is to conduct research in the field.
Since sports analytics is a relatively new field, there is a lot of potential for amateur research. There are so many questions in sports that can perhaps be answered with basic research and analysis. UTSPAN seeks to bring together sports analytics fans at U of T in an informal setting to tackle some of these questions.
Members are encouraged to conduct original research in a wide variety of topics and sports, from baseball player performance to possession efficiency in basketball and even inefficiencies in sports betting and fan behaviour. As a group affiliated with a university, UTSPAN hopes to be able to establish relationships with professional teams to obtain data and cooperation that individual researchers can’t easily get their hands on.
So far, the group has an agreement with the Blue Jays to create models to predict baseball player performance. Besides collaborating with professional teams, they are also hoping to publish original research in journals and present findings at conferences. The UTSB conference and the PANEX summit are two that UTSPAN hopes to target. A hackathon is also in the works, possibly focusing on “solving” a problem in sports analytics or answering difficult questions.
Stolbunov and Chan both stress their goal for the group, which is to help students connect with industry professionals. “I think somewhere down the line they’d like sports analytics to be its own department, with students doing specific research,” says Stolbunov. “So it’s definitely something that’s growing in its reach and gaining potential in terms of career opportunities for students.”
Everybody is welcome to attend UTSPAN meetings and to join the mailing list. No previous experience with sports or analytics is needed, and fans of all sports are welcome.
Students can visit their website at sportsanalytics.sa.utoronto.ca for more information.