New BYU class explores data science in sports

Zach Knowlton grew up reading box scores in the newspaper and predicted the NBA Most Valuable Player for a statistics project in middle school. Now he is teaching a new pilot class at BYU that helps students understand the intersection of sports and data science.

Knowlton credits sports as the catalyst that helped him gain interest in studying and working in statistics and hopes the same can happen for others in the course.

The class is entitled “Special Topics in Statistics: Data Science in Sports,” and is part of the BYU statistics department. The course description says the class 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 did both his undergraduate and graduate studies at BYU and wrote his master’s thesis on BYU Football, using statistics to create player importance metrics and rankings. The coaches gave Knowlton grades for each player after games, and he combined those with other box score statistics to determine which players and which positions were most integral to the success, or failure, of the team.

Former BYU Football player Bronson Kaufusi, a statistics major himself, assisted Knowlton in getting connected with the football team and gaining access to the data needed to create his thesis.

BYU professor Zach Knowlton teaches the new Data Science in Sports course for the Fall 2020 semester. Knowlton studied statistics at BYU and worked with BYU Football for his master’s thesis. (Preston Crawley)

Knowlton said the project with BYU Football “jumpstarted” his career in statistics and gave him the application in the sports world he needed. Following his time at BYU, Knowlton moved to Colorado, where he worked in data science for the Players’ Tribune, developing an “athlete brand score.”

The data science department at the Players’ Tribune was eventually cut, showing Knowlton just how unstable the sports industry can be at times.

BYU reached out to Knowlton about possibly teaching a statistics course after he finished at the Players’ Tribune and returned to Utah to work in data science for Progressive Leasing. He came up with the idea for the sports data analytics class and pitched it to BYU. This semester is the “brainchild” of that pitch, according to Knowlton.

The Data Science in Sports course is designed to be a capstone-type course, or as Knowlton calls it, “version zero of an internship,” and gives students a chance to do something similar to what he did with BYU Football. Knowlton is already talking to an NBA team about potential projects with the class and hopes it can be an opportunity to get some students into sports analytics jobs.

Despite the instability and competition that he has seen firsthand in the sports industry, Knowlton still believes there is value in sports data science. If nothing else, it acts as a way to get students and young people interested and involved in statistics and go on to work in other areas of the field.

There are ongoing talks for a possible collaboration between students in the Sports Media emphasis of the BYU School of Communications and the Data Science in Sports class to create and publish stories and other media using data from Knowlton’s class.

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