How the SFU Sports Analytics Club has become a big player within the sports analytics industry

A sit-down with club co-president Dani Chu on how the club has gotten where they are, and where they’re going from here

From the Vancouver Whitecaps to Canada Basketball, Dani Chu and the club have already made major connections. Arshika Chandranath / The Peak

Like any other industry, innovation has always been a key to success within the sports world. Whether it’s the NBA’s recent love of floor spacing (essentially wiping out the mid-range game), or Antonio Conte’s three at the back formation being adopted by soccer clubs across Europe, new tactics are always being implemented within professional sports.

While these new strategies are often a case of personnel (Golden State having two of the best three-point shooters in NBA history during their first title run; Conte having three fantastic centre-backs while managing at Juventus), their adoption by other teams points to something a lot bigger. As sports continually evolve, an emphasis on staying with and ahead of trends is arguably now more important than ever. This rapid evolution, in large part, can be tied to the ever-expanding industry that is sports analytics.

The movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, was one of the first influences that put sports analytics within the mainstream eye. The truth is, however, that much of the work happens behind the scenes. It involves the collection and analysis of data within a certain sport or team, and using that data in an attempt to gain a competitive edge on other teams. Whether it’s tracking player movements or finding out certain lineups that work best together, sports analytics has something to offer every sport and athlete.

SFU statistics professors Luke Bornn and Tim Swartz were aware of this back when they started SFU’s Sports Analytics Club in 2015, and long before that. Bornn, an alumnus of the Harvard Statistics Department and Harvard’s Sports Analytics Club, wanted to create the club as a way to give students an opportunity to gain connections in the sports analytics world. It was not until the spring of 2017, however, when current undergraduate students Dani Chu, Abe Adeeb, and Lucas Wu became the presidents of the club that things really started to take off.

With no major connections with professional sports teams, and therefore few projects that the club was working on, they decided to look for something big. After successfully receiving a grant from the Canadian Statistical Science Institute, the club planned the Vancouver Sports Analytics Symposium and Hackathon (VANSASH), which was based off of the NBA Hackathon that takes place in New York City. Chu told The Peak: “We wanted a west coast sports analytics event that we could go to, and [there wasn’t one being planned] so we said, ‘why don’t we plan it ourselves?’”

The event took place this past summer, and its success is still helping the club to this day. By having this product to show, the Sports Analytics Club has been able to gain connections and projects with organizations as big as the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Vancouver Canucks, and Canada Basketball. Whether it’s helping the Whitecaps’ scouting department film games, or working on an exclusive project with Canada Basketball, these connections allow students to build relationships with major organizations.   

“We are trying to bridge the gap and give students access to the sports analytics industry,” said Chu. Doing so is important due to the intense competition that there is within the field, and barriers to entry that many face when trying to connect with professional sports teams. As Bornn told Dani, “You have to do the work first, and then you’ll get noticed later.”

The club also was a part of Canada Basketball’s first ever U19 gold medal this past summer in Cairo. As discussed by Chu, the club created a data scraper for Canada Basketball’s scouting department so that they would better be able to analyze data from the team’s box scores. After the medal, Canada Basketball’s performance analyst and database manager Phil Jevtovic sent the club a text with a picture of the gold medal saying, “U were a part of this! Thank you!”

More recently, the club submitted a project for Canada Women’s Rugby 7s under Dr. Tim Swartz and Dr. Dave Clark. The project was given to them by Ming-Chang Tsai, a performance and data scientist from the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, who was very happy with the results.

Even with the success that they have had, the club still has major aspirations for the future. Tsai will now be moving the club to work with Canadian Women’s Soccer in the new year. They will be hosting VANSASH 2.0 in 2018, with hopes of it being “a little bit bigger and a little bit better” with “bigger projects, bigger conversion rate of people coming, and industry networking,” according to Chu. As for their projects with other organizations, Chu expects hours of work to be done over the winter break when school is no longer an issue.

This is not to be said that countless hours of work are not already being done. As Chu shows The Peak his schedule, every assignment, project, meeting, and extracurricular is in there: and the schedule is packed. While this high level of organization is an asset, he is adamant about the support team that he has (his parents, girlfriend, and friends) who “put [him] in a position where [he] can just worry about [his] work and studies” and “push [him] to be better and do more”.

As for what’s next for the club, they will be looking to deliver on projects in the next couple of months, and preparing to host their next VANSASH. On top of that, the club will be working with local high school basketball programs as the first sport analysts to work at that level in British Columbia. The club also hopes to expand their involvement with the SFU sports teams, beyond just working with SFU basketball on Peter Chow-White’s team as they have in the past.

With all this work, however, the club is looking to include more members. There is a misconception that the industry is only comprised of computer scientists, but people with communication skills and knowledge of a sport are highly sought after as well. Whether it’s coding, data scraping, organizing events, or establishing/maintaining relationships with other organizations, there are a variety of skills needed in sports analytics. With all three club presidents graduating in 2018, there is also a large need for people to step into leadership roles in the near future.

If you are interested in joining the Sports Analytics Club, you can email club co-president Dani Chu at danic@sfu.ca. State your full name, phone number, sports of interest, coding experience, coding languages, and all projects that you are interested in.

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