by Travis Williams
JUST THE STATS: Virginia Tech’s Sports Data Analytics Club is growing and connecting student members with opportunities in sports careers.
The founders of Virginia Tech’s Sports Data Analytics Club excel at using numbers to predict results, but there’s one outcome they didn’t compute fully—the group’s popularity.
“Our first meeting, I would say 70 to 90 people showed up,” said club co-founder Lynda Nguyen, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in computational modeling and data analytics (CMDA). “I was hoping for like 20, but the room was so packed we also had to have an additional first meeting the next day.”
In the spring of 2018, a trip to the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference inspired Nguyen and club co-founder Stephen Olsen to spearhead the launch of the group. Lizette Zietsman, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, assisted with the effort.
“I think that conference really opened our eyes to how big sports analytics is and what is going on in the industry,” said Zietsman, who now serves as the club’s academic advisor. “And then the number of students who showed up [for the club] was overwhelming.”
Since that first meeting in fall 2019, the group has grown to about 118 members. Several Hokie alums working in the sports analytics field have visited to share their knowledge and experiences, including Faizan Hasnany, an analytics coordinator for the Chicago Bulls; Kenneth Massey, a sports statistician and contributor to the college football Bowl Champions Series; and Ken Pomeroy, a college hoops guru who revolutionized the usage of game stats.
“Learn from what other people have done, but realize you don’t necessarily have to do exactly what other people tell you,” said Pomeroy. “Find your own path and do what interests you and, theoretically, that will lead to good things.”
For Olsen, a junior studying CMDA, the Sports Data Analytics Club represents the intersection of interests that drew him to Virginia Tech.
“Seeing some articles about students working with the basketball team here while I was applying to college was definitely something that stimulated my interests,” Olsen said.
One such story featured then-senior Sean McClurg’s work using data statistics to help the coaches of the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team create winning strategies. McClurg ’17 currently works as video coordinator for New Mexico State University’s men’s basketball team.
“Coming to Tech and finding Dr. Zietsman helped me get involved with research related to sports and math, and fusing those two interests has carried on through the club,” said Olsen.
One of the priorities of the club is connecting students with opportunities to learn and develop. Since the fall, a handful of club members have worked alongside Virginia Tech’s athletic teams.
“The club’s benefited me tremendously,” said Ieuan Israel, a senior studying CMDA who will work with the Hokies’ baseball team this spring. “I’ve been trying to find a place where I fit in with CMDA, like something I could see myself doing professionally.”
Israel plans to channel his passion for numbers into calculating run-expectancy figures that can be used by the baseball coaching staff. He believes the experience will not only help him as he prepares for a career, but also when he and fellow club members attend a baseball-related analytics competition in Arizona in the spring.
“We’re super excited about it. We’ll be able to be in front of a bunch of major league baseball teams,” said Israel of the contest, which will be held during the Society for American Baseball Research’s annual conference.
Both the competition and the work with the baseball team are being funded in part through a Luther and Alice Hamlett Undergraduate Research Scholarship, which supports students majoring in CMDA, nanoscience, and systems biology. The scholarship also helped with costs associated with Nguyen’s trip to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analytics conference last spring.
Zietsman said such generosity will help the club take their work applying data to world of athletics beyond the university.
“It would be great to share the terrific things our students are doing as a result of the wonderful advancements happening at Virginia Tech,” Zietsman said.