It’s difficult these days to find the word sport and not see the word analytics next to it. We have advanced NFL stats, Next Gen stats, and clubs have data gurus working behind the scenes looking at the numbers. Fancy phrases like “data mining” and “machine learning” get thrown around. But what are these data folks really doing? What are they impacting and how did they get involved in the first place? To answer these questions I spoke with Tucker Zeleny who is the Director of Sports Analytics for the University of Nebraska’s Department of Sports Analytics.
You might be confused by the title of the department, “Sports Analytics.” You may be thinking to yourself, I didn’t know college athletic programs had such departments. Well, colleges don’t. Nebraska athletics houses the first, and currently only, department that is dedicated to sports analytics.
So how does a department like this emerge? Well, before the department existed and before Zeleny had his PhD, there were some people within the athletic department that, “had some idea of things that we want to look at,” Zeleny told me. So while working towards his PhD in statistics, Zeleny started helping out on the business side of things for the athletics department.
As he finished up his PhD program, the work Zeleny was doing for the athletic department was getting noticed. Zeleny stated, “I was graduating with my PhD and they [the athletic department] said we think there is some value here.” The athletic office decided to form an entire department to answer important sport questions using data analysis. Zeleny applied for the lead role in the department and has been in the lead role now for two years now. Currently, the department works with 10 Nebraska sports teams in addition to working with ticketing, marketing, the business office, and strength and conditioning.
Many sports fans were introduced to sports analytics by Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The Nebraska sports analytics department certainly takes a moneyball approach to in-game analysis. Referring to the football program Zeleny stated, “We do a lot of self-scout stuff.” That stuff includes breaking down third down conversion rates, looking at offensive and defensive efficiency metrics, and evaluating in-game decisions such as going for it on 4th down. The conclusions that Zeleny and his department reach impact wins and losses on the field for Nebraska football.
But evaluating Nebraska in-game data is just part of what Zeleny’s department does. To understand success, Zeleny likes to look at national data trends. Zeleny said one of his research questions was, “What is the optimal punt distance and hang time in order to minimize a return?” Gathering data from all FBS teams allows Zeleny to answer this question and many others.
Zeleny also understands that what you bring to the field has a huge impact on game results. That’s why Nebraska utilizes tracking data via Catapult Sports during strength and conditioning sessions. Analyzing athlete data has helped Nebraska athletics cut down on injuries sustained, ensuring that their best players are on the field and not on the sidelines.
Any way you measure it, the Nebraska sports analytics department has been a success. However, the young department still faces many challenges. Zeleny stated, “The biggest challenge is deciding what it is we want to know.” Unlike TV shows that portray data analysis as a 30 second process, getting data in a usable form takes a tremendous amount of work. Zeleny has to ask himself, is this data we already have? Is it data we can collect? Is this data we can buy? And of course, is this data we can interpret?
There is a big question Zeleny is looking to answer and it has to do with team rosters. He voiced, “Something we’re really interested in is looking at the recruiting side of things.” Zeleny is interested in answering the question of not only who will be a successful student-athlete at Nebraska, but what type of student-athlete will want to be at Nebraska. Putting it simply, Zeleny stated, “Who should we be focusing our time and effort on?” Of course once you’ve asked the question you need to be able to answer the question. Zeleny is confident his department will find some valuable conclusions about recruiting.
Just like the field of sports analytics, the sports analytics department at Nebraska will continue to grow. The department is currently made up of two full-time employees and one part-time employee. Zeleny anticipates adding another full-time staff member in the near future. But the volume of work produced by the department would not be possible without the assistance of student volunteers. Zeleny has a team of undergraduate and graduate students that help with the data collection and data analysis. It’s a perfect example of how sports can be part of the educational process in college athletics.
Follow Jordan on Twitter @JDSports84