College Football Bringing Stats In-House

Mathematicians and sports teams are perfect together


The data analytics takeover in professional sport is well established. No major team worth their salt is without a dedicated statistics division and analysts are working their way closer and closer to the manager’s bench. At college level, though, analytics is yet to make a significant impact. But colleges are catching on, with many employing outside consultants for data analysis while some, like Nebraska, hire full-time sports analytics directors.

It’s surprising that colleges are behind with so many varied departments within touching distance, though, and some are looking to use their resources to bring data analysis in-house. Mathematicians at the University of Arizona recently launched a collaboration with the athletics department to develop a sports statistics research program, according to the college’s Daily Wildcat. The college has taken note of developments in the NFL and will be hoping the new department can improve the performance of its athletes.

The college’s statistics and applied mathematics students will be working to draw insight from data collected in men’s basketball, men’s golf and women’s soccer. Data collection has become an integral part of other sports almost without exception, and indeed the NFL, and the use of data analytics in the remaining leagues will only grow. ’There are hardly any universities doing this kind of thing,’ said David Rockoff, a PhD. student in UA’s graduate interdisciplinary degree program. ‘Just in the past decade or so, sports analytics has gotten to be big at the pro level, but what we’re doing is somewhat groundbreaking at the college level.’

The University of Michigan is following suit, too. According to statement put out by the college, the new Exercise & Sport Science Initiative (ESSI) will draw together experts from a range of faculties, Michigan Athletics and their various industry partners to ‘optimize physical performance and health for athletes and exercisers of all ages and abilities.’ The faculty will focus on three key areas - Performance optimization, data science and analytics, and sports technologies. All three complement each other, of course, and ESSI is hoping that its additional $3.5 million in seed funding - provided by the University of Michigan Office of Research, Michigan Athletics, and the Office of the Provost - will be enough to successfully expand its research. According to Ron Zernicke, a professor at the college, more than 30 companies attended a recent invitation-only symposium and showed interested in working with ESSI, including the likes of adidas, Nike and Gatorade.

‘With developments in areas ranging from improved helmet designs to the analysis of sports data, science and technology are opening up a host of new opportunities to transform sports and exercise,’ said S. Jack Hu, vice president for research. ‘With the help of industry partners, we seek not only to explore the science underlying new advances, but also to translate new ideas and insights into practice on our campus and beyond.’

A similar student-run body has sprung up at Yale, and it seems only a matter of time before college sports is as data-proficient as its professional counterpart. Colleges are in a uniquely advantageous position, having mathematicians and data scientists studying a stones throw away with the infrastructure in place to make collaboration straightforward. Bringing the data analysis in-house also benefits both departments - don’t be surprised when colleges follow Michigan and Arizona’s promising example.

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