Harvard Sports Analysts Score with Professionals

UPDATED: April 15, 2016, at 12:48 p.m.

Undergraduates interested in analyzing athletics data need look no further than Harvard Yard, where the College’s only sports analytics student group meets weekly to discuss unnoticed trends across the sports world.

Over the past several years, Harvard’s Sports Analysis Collective has grown in visibility, thanks in large part to a football prediction that went viral and a favorable reputation among professional athletic organizations and writers.

The group, which meets every Tuesday night, collects vast amounts of data across all sports and levels of competition and uses advanced statistics and computer science to formulate their analyses, publishing reports and predictions to their website. Their members have gone onto reputable careers; one, Jason W. Rosenfeld ’12, is now the director of analytics for the National Basketball Association.

For many in the group, sports analytics provides an opportunity to continue involvement in upper level athletics, Kurt T. Bullard ’17, the group’s treasurer said.

“Harvard is the place to go if you want to go into sports analytics,” Bullard, who is also a Crimson sports editor, said. “I’m not gonna be an athlete, so this is a way I’d work for a team. It’s sort of a dream job for me.”

According to Brendan J. Kent ’18, HSAC’s secretary who focuses primarily on soccer analysis, each member can research the sport or topic that interests him most. Kent himself began working part-time for the Portland Timbers, a Major League Soccer team, because the team reached out to him after viewing his work for HSAC.

“I’ve done research on travel in the MLS and the effect on that for players and some stuff on Champions league and the value of one-seeds,” Kent said.

Kent is far from the only member garnering attention for his research. Nearly all of the members are seriously considering sports analytics as a career, he said, and the club has also become a prime recruiting pool for professional sports teams.

“A really valuable component of the club is that you have the ability to build a portfolio, but also hone your skills, so when you’re looking at real jobs you have some solid work on what’s become a pretty respected website,” Kent said.

Adam W. Gilfix ’17, the club’s co-president who focuses mainly on baseball, has written several analysis pieces for the Washington Post. The club has provided him and other members the opportunity to network with professionals, he said, noting that they attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last month.

“They had plenty of people from ESPN, the Washington Post, various sports teams, whether from the front office or players and coaches,” Gilfix said. “It was also an amazing networking opportunity. We got to meet people who we watch on TV and read about everyday.”

Much outside interest comes from the group’s website, which has grown a sizeable viewership over past years, according to Gilfix.

“Recently, we’ve been getting on average 400 to 700 views on our blog per day,” Gilfix said. “We’ve seen quite a few days with 1,000 or 2,000 views, but also a handful of days with 30,000 views or more.”

Some of HSAC’s articles have gone viral, including a Miami Dolphins 2015 playoff prediction from Bullard. Gilfix said the post received more than 100,000 total views and has surpassed the HSAC homepage as their most viewed page.

“I checked Facebook that afternoon, and at that point I believe it was trending,” Gilfix added. “When I saw that it was written about on NFL.com along with some other sites, I realized this was a big deal.”

Bullard was interviewed on ESPN Miami, Fox Sports, and CBS Sports, and attributed the attention his prediction received to various factors, including the “Harvard” name, the time of year, and the Dolphins multi-year playoff drought prior to the 2015 season, which made the prediction seem highly unlikely.

“It was sort of the perfect storm,” Bullard said. “It was late July and NFL writers were looking for things to write about because they need to publish content.”

The Dolphins did not end up in the playoffs, but Bullard said he still believes in his approach, which used approximate value statistics for each team’s primary offensive and defensive players.

Additionally, members in the club have multiple ongoing partnerships with news outlets and professional sports teams, and the club itself is partnered with the Boston Celtics.

The group primarily helps the Celtics collect and organize “SportVU” data, advanced player tracking data that follows the actions of each individual player during a given game, Kent said.

“A group of 20 or so members of our club alternate going to Celtics games, and we essentially run that system and man the computers there,” Kent said. “We get four tickets usually to every home game and access to the press buffet. I think it’s an awesome deal.”

Despite the group’s reputation within the world of professional sports, they enjoy only limited popularity within the Harvard community, Kent said.

“We joke that HSAC is more well known in the sports community than it is in the Harvard community,” Kent said. “I meet a lot of people here that have no idea what we do, but plenty of executives from professional teams know about us.”

—Laszlo Herwitz contributed to reporting of this story.

—Staff Writer Maxwell J. Simon can be reached at maxwell.simon@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @maxwelljsimon.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: April 15

An earlier version of this article mispelled the name of SportVU player data tracking system.

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