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July 30, 2010
Making a Career
So You Want to Do Sports Stats?

by Kevin Pelton


Author's Note: This column was updated in May 2013. I am no longer consulting for the Pacers after joining ESPN Insider full time in January, but thanks to John Hollinger's prominent role with the Memphis Grizzlies and the success of other executives with an analytical background, I'm getting more questions than ever about working for a team. Hopefully this helps.

After I shared in a March column that I am working with the Indiana Pacers as a consultant, I got a series of similar emails. The general message: I'm a huge basketball fan who is interested in math. How can I parlay this combination into a chance to work for a team?

Over the last several months, I've felt guilty for not responding to these emails. In large part, I wasn't quite sure what to say, since I'm entirely the wrong person to ask. I would describe my role as something of a happy accident more than anything I set out or planned to do. Still, I've got enough experience -- especially having seen friends break into the league -- that I think I can offer some advice.

1. Prove Your Worth
There are tons of people who would love to work in an NBA front office, and almost as many who believe they'd be good at doing so. What is important to realize is that teams hear from these people constantly, and they don't have the time or necessarily even the ability to separate between the cranks and the genuinely talented analysts.

That's why it's important to not just say how you can help a team with your analytical skills, but demonstrate it. That's never been easier than in 2010. All it takes is a few clicks to start a blog and begin sharing your work with the world at large. The Internet isn't exactly a perfect meritocracy, but if you do good work it will eventually get noticed.

An even simpler option is to get started on the APBRmetrics message board, which I founded. Over the past five years, we've seen probably a dozen people begin working for NBA teams who started by posting on the board. Many of them still hang around, though they're limited in what they can say. More importantly, they're reading and taking notice of anyone who begins providing quality information in their posts.

The biggest thing I can stress to set yourself apart is being original. The world doesn't really need another basketball rating system; we've already got more than enough of those. It's much wiser to start tapping into unexplored areas. Joe Sill used his expertise in regression analysis to come up with an alternate version of adjusted plus-minus, and after presenting it at last year's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he's working for a team. Jon Nichols and Ryan Parker used their websites to mine a great deal from play-by-play data, and both of them have been hired by teams as well.

The key is finding where your skills best fit. There's a spectrum of analysts out there that range from those who know basketball well to those who have the strongest backgrounds in formal statistics. You need to have both skills, but their relative balance will help determine where to focus your analysis.

2. Know the Field
You're not going to have any idea how to be original unless you're familiar with the work already being done by the APBRmetrics community. While there is plenty left to discover, we've also made important strides over the last decade, and there's no sense in retracing those steps. Start with Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver's opus, and make sure you're familiar with what John Hollinger has written, with the work on adjusted plus-minus by a variety of sources and more.

3. Be Able to Communicate
Even if you happen to be the most insightful basketball analyst in the world, if you can't communicate that information in a way teams can understand, your work will never help anyone. This means both being able to write reports and explain verbally to basketball lifers who may not be familiar with statistical analysis what the numbers mean.

This is part of the task for analytical writers as well, so it's nothing new for me, but even with this background I'm still searching for new ways to communicate my point all the time. Improving your ability to communicate is one of the benefits of blogging. There are two basic ways to improve -- practice and learning from others. That's another benefit of reading as much as you possibly can.

4. Know People
Basketball is no different than any other business--connections matter, which was true in my case. It's always a good idea to try to meet as many people in the business as possible. Because of the decentralized nature of the analytics field, this is probably most easily done online. Again, the APBRmetrics forum is the best place to "meet" peers and get your name out there. If you're interested in pressing the flesh in person, the Sloan Conference provides this opportunity, though it's surely better to go to put faces to names rather than going cold to try to meet people.

5. Be Prepared to Do a Lot for a Little
Because the supply of interested prospective analysts far outstrips the demand, even if you do make it into the field it is almost certainly going to be as an intern at first. No one's getting rich off basketball statistics, so be prepared to sacrifice relative to people with similar educational backgrounds to pursue your dreams. If that doesn't sound like something you're willing to do, then you're almost certainly not going to make it.

Don't know where to start with internships? Teams usually post openings on NBA Teamwork Online. Occasionally they'll post more details on the APBRmetrics forum.

6. Good Luck!

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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