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Brigham Young University is exploring how statistics coincide with sports in their newest data class taught by Zach Knowlton, a Senior Data Scientist at Progressive Leasing and now an Adjunct Professor at the university.

“Special Topics in Statistics: Data Science in Sports” is part of BYU’s statistics department but the course has also been popular among students focusing in Sports Media. According to the course description on BYU’s website, the course will “prepare students for the workforce by completing an end-to-end data science project using sports data. (Students) will learn about data collection, data cleaning, exploratory data analysis, modeling and reporting.”

Knowlton, a BYU alumnus received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Statistics at BYU focusing his thesis on creating player importance metrics and rankings regarding BYU’s football team. According to a features article by BYU’s newspaper, The Daily Universe, he combined box score statistics and individual scores given to him by the Football coaches to “determine which players and which positions were most integral to the success, or failure, of the team.” He credits his thesis and the opportunity to work with BYU’s football team as the catalyst to his career in data science. After Knowlton received his Master’s degree he began working at Players’ Tribune where he worked in their data science department creating an “athlete brand score.”

As of now, the course is what Knowlton refers to as “version zero of an internship” or a capstone-type course. He wants to give students the same hands-on opportunity to create a project similar to his thesis. In fact, according to the article Knowlton is in talks with a NBA team to create opportunities for potential internships and job opportunities.

As professional sports teams are turning to data science to get the edge on their competition the need for sports statistical analysts will certainly grow. Knowlton told the Daily Universe that while a job in sports analytics can be somewhat competitive, he wants to use to the course to get students interested in data science since there are many different fields a statistician or data scientist can work in.

This comes on the heels of an increase in students majoring in statistics.  According to College Factual, statistics was the 116th most popular major nationwide in the 2017-2018 school year, a 10.5% increase from the year before. A job in statistics is expected to grow 16% between 2016 and 2026 with an average starting salary of $62K. Kake.com put a degree in Statistics at their #68 position in their list of college degree that earns the most money. The article estimates that a statistician can earn about $113K at a mid-level job.

Knowlton’s sports statistics class is not the first college course focusing solely on sports statistics and due to the increased popularity and high profile jobs, it won’t be the last Purdue University offers a Master of Science in Applied Data Science with an emphasis on Sports Analytics while the University of North Texas offers a MS in Advanced Data Analytics with a concentration in Sports.

Last modified on Monday, 07 September 2020
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Danielle Loughnane

Danielle Loughnane earned her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College and has currently been working in the data science field since 2015. She is the author of a comic book entitled, “The Superhighs” and wrote a blog from 2011-2015 about working in the restaurant industry called, "Sir I Think You've Had Too Much.” In her spare time she likes reading graphic novels and snuggling with her dogs.

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