how to start a sports analytics club

My introduction to sports analytics largely came through my collegiate sports analytics club, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective ("HSAC"). Through HSAC, I was incredibly fortunate to find a number of mentors, both faculty and students, who helped connect the statistics and data science that I was learning in the classroom to sports.

It's no surprise that as sports analytics becomes more widely practiced, a number of new sports analytics clubs are popping up at colleges and even high schools around the country. Below, I've outlined some of the things you'll want to consider if you're forming a club at your school. All sports analytics clubs are different and there is no "right" way to do it, however, many sports analytics clubs incorporate at least some of the elements I've described.

The logistics

If you're starting a club, you'll first need to sort out a few logistics. These are things that generally need to happen to start any official organization at a school, whether the organization is related to sports analytics or not.

Write a constitution

As with many student organizations, you'll probably need a constitution that dictates who can join the club (e.g. if there will be entry requirements or if anyone is welcome to join), the club leadership structure, and the election process for leadership positions.

Recruit a faculty advisor (and maybe a graduate advisor)

At many schools, this is already a requirement to officially launch a new club. Regardless of requirements, though, it can be incredibly helpful to bring a faculty member on board. While the faculty advisor doesn't necessarily need to have a background in sports analytics, experience is certainly a bonus, particularly when it comes to making connections between the club and industry professionals.

For college-level clubs, it can also be helpful to find a graduate advisor: a graduate student at your school who has some familiarity with sports analytics and who can serve as an additional resource for club members.

Schedule weekly meetings

This is fairly obvious, but you'll probably want to meet as a group at some point. Weekly is a good cadence for the entire group, though depending on the programming you offer, there might be subgroups that also meet regularly.

The programming

Once you've ironed out the logistics, it's time to develop your club's programming. These are the things your club will do to get your members engaged in sports analytics.

Below are popular programming elements used by sports analytics clubs. By no means do you need to incorporate all of these elements into your programming. You might start with two or three on this list and add more with time if you have the capacity.

Invite Guest Speakers

Bring in guest speakers, whether in-person or via videoconference, to get first-hand exposure to industry professionals.

A guest speaker might be an academic researcher presenting some of their recent work, a sports team analyst speaking about their day-to-day responsibilities, or even a player sharing their perspective on analytics. Ideally, there's a Q&A session at the end of every talk.

Many sports analytics professionals are happy to share their experience with those aspiring to join the field, and you'll probably be surprised how often folks will say "yes" if you reach out to invite them to speak.

Present and discuss existing or original work

Each week (or however often you meet), assign a member to present on some existing sports analytics research. This existing research could be anything from an academic research paper to a less formal blog post.

After the presentation, allow club members to ask questions of the presenter and open up the room for discussion of the merits, shortcomings, applications, and extensions of the work.

The presenter should ensure they thoroughly understand the research and are able to speak to the methodology. Obviously, the discussion is more productive when someone in the room knows why the researcher made certain decisions.

Take on group projects

Form groups to work on sports analytics research. Assign each group a "problem" to solve on their own and have all groups present their work to the rest of the club. Example problems might be:

  • Determine the optimal time to use substitutes in soccer
  • Create a metric to assess the value of a goalkeeper
  • Develop a way to compare the skill of a Euroleague player to that of an NBA player

Ideally, the group is working towards building some original analysis. However, there is certainly still value in attempting to recreate a metric or analysis that already exists. Ultimately, the goal is for group members to experience the sports analytics research process in a collaborative, exploratory environment.

Volunteer for your school's varsity teams

Reach out to the coaches of your school's varsity teams and offer to help with statistical analysis (for example, the Cat Stats group at Davidson College). If coaches are interested, assign club members to work with each individual team. This is one of the easiest ways to get hands-on experience working in a team environment.

While the rigor of the analysis you're able to perform may depend on the quality and quantity of the data available, at the very least you'll get exposure to one of the most crucial aspects of sports analytics: integrating analytical work with the coaching staff's decision making.

Start a blog

Create a club website and allow members to submit sports analytics blog posts to it. These posts can range from fun (I once wrote about a model to determine biggest NBA All-Star snub), to more serious or academic. The point is that you're giving your members a platform to showcase their analytical chops.

And don't forget to promote your members' work. Create a club Twitter account to share your posts, and begin engaging with other sports analytics community members.

Attend conferences

Travel as a group to sports analytics conferences. Note, though, that while many conferences have student discounts, they can still be expensive, particularly if they require travel. Some schools provide financial support or grants to student organizations which can be used to subsidize travel and registration fees.

Compete in hackathons

Put together a team of club members to compete in a sports analytics hackathon like the Big Data Bowl or the NBA Basketball Analytics Hackathon.

If you're successful, you may have an opportunity to present in front of league front office staff who are looking for young analytics talent. A growing number of folks have parlayed success in a hackathon into a full-time job with a professional organization (ex. Ryan Chen).

In summary

Sports analytics clubs come in many shapes and sizes, and the best route for your club depends what you and your fellow members are looking to put in and get out of it. Regardless, building off a selection of these elements is an excellent way to get started. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out.