February 28, 2011


Game changers: Today, getting a high-powered job in sports is increasingly about working with the data, and a growing group of Hub-based number crunchers is making inroads -- and waves -- in the business (Shira Springer, February 27, 2011 , Boston Globe Magazine)

Boston provides an ideal mix – lots of universities, championship-winning franchises, team owners with big-business backgrounds – for smart, young mathematicians and entrepreneurs who’d like to come up with clever new answers to the professor’s question. In recent years, the city and its suburbs have launched sports-related companies and front-office careers that owe their success to the growing importance of number crunchers.

And some of those involved aren’t that far away from being kids. Harvard sophomore John Ezekowitz, who is 20, works for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns from his Cambridge dorm room, looking beyond traditional basketball statistics like points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage to better quantify player performance. He is enjoying the kind of early exposure to professional sports once reserved for athletic phenoms and once rare at institutions like Harvard and MIT. “If I do a good job, I can have some new insight into how this team plays, what works and what doesn’t,” says Ezekowitz. “To think that I might have some measure of influence, however small, over how a team plays is a thrill.” It’s not a bad job, either. While he doesn’t want to reveal how much he earns as a consultant, he says that not only does he eat better than most college students, the extra cash also allows him to feed his golf-club-buying habit.

Ezekowitz is majoring in economics with a minor in statistics and is taking courses in applied math, econometrics, and a class called Art and Thought in the Cold War. He’s also co-president of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, a campus club that comes up with new statistical measures and then publishes them in a blog as well as research papers in academic journals (a few of its members have recently begun blogging for the Globe). In a recent post, Ezekowitz introduced a new basketball statistic to better calculate the added benefit of teams reaching the free-throw line (see Page 35, “A Stat Is Born”). Ezekowitz found the standard box score stat, the free-throw percentage, inadequate. His school doesn’t offer any undergraduate courses devoted entirely to sports analytics, but Tufts University has Sabermetrics 101, a course on baseball analytics that has launched students into Major League jobs with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks. And the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association have also recently taken an interest in recruiting at Sloan.

Some team executives consider Boston the Silicon Valley of sports analytics. Celtics co-owner and venture capitalist Steve Pagliuca calls it a new Florence, a place of trendsetting creativity influencing teams around the world. Either way, Boston’s geeks are having a field day.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2011 6:17 AM
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