Dan Altman, founder of North Yard Analytics and head of strategy at the group that manages Swansea City and D.C. United, has developed a unique fellowship programme targeted at young analysts aiming to forge a career in the sports analytics industry.
The fellowships will be awarded by an expert panel made up of Sarah Rudd (StatDNA), Ravi Ramimeni (Seattle Sounders), Scott Helmich (Swansea City), Stewart Mairs (D.C. United) and Dan Altman.
The selected fellows will receive a cash prize and mentoring from Dan and other industry experts, including OptaPro’s data science team, and will be supplied with one full season of detailed Opta data to continue to progress and enhance their analytical skills.
Full fellowship details, along with information on how to apply, can be found here. The deadline for applications is 31st March.
One of the key aims of the fellowship is to create an opportunity for aspiring analysts that might not arise through conventional channels.
Within this industry, there is often discussion revolving around how a fresh perspective can create an environment in which new ideas and innovation can flourish. This was encapsulated perfectly at the 2016 Manchester City Hackathon, which saw people from a range of backgrounds come together to apply data to generate fresh tactical insights.
Despite this initiative, the football analytics industry - on the whole - still lacks diversity. There are a host of underrepresented backgrounds and types of people within this space, and there is a risk that this industry could be left behind by others that have embraced diversity.
Following the launch of this North Yard Analytics fellowship initiative we spoke with Dan, discussing not only the fellowship itself, but also touching on Dan’s current activity and perspective across the wider sports analytics industry.
What inspired you to set up this fellowship scheme?
Backroom staffs in soccer/football are generally dominated by the same demographic, and I see no legitimate reason for it. I believe a more diverse workforce improves the breadth and quality of work in virtually any industry, and diversity also enriches the experience for the workers themselves.
Speaking on behalf of the jury, what in particular you are hoping to see from applicants? The jury’s backgrounds and current roles are relatively diverse, with each bringing a different perspective on what might be required to not only secure the fellowship, but also succeed in this industry.
For me a good analyst needs to be able to do these things:
- build mathematical models
- design statistical metrics for the models' outputs
- test and calibrate the models scientifically
- create visualisations of the results
- communicate the messages from the data clearly and accessibly
Not everyone will have all of these skills in spades – I certainly don't – but I think it's important to work on all of them. And I'm glad that we have people on the jury with different jobs, because I don't think we're looking for just one type of fellow. Each member of the jury may see the potential in a candidate that the others might have missed.
What advice would you give to people interested in applying to this fellowship?
Show us what's most innovative about your ideas, especially if you've taken something from another field and applied it to soccer/football. But just as importantly, show us how it's accessible and applicable to clubs. We're looking for your potential to stand out, but also your ability to engage with non-analysts – we want to bring your work to clubs and have them grasp its power right away.
Could you tell us a bit more about the mentoring available throughout the year?
We want to connect young analysts to people who can move their work forward. We have a lot of contacts in the field – analysts, sports scientists, scouts, coaches, agents, executives – and all of us have slightly different expertise. We'll try to find the right people to review the fellows' work and offer constructive suggestions, whether it's making their statistics more robust, refining their visualisations, explaining an idea to coaches, collaborating with scouts, or something else.
It is also important to acknowledge that this is not a one-way process. What are your expectations of the fellows?
I don't want to put the fellows under any pressure during their fellowship year, so we'll be looking for people who will grab this opportunity with both hands. In five years, we want to be able to point to ten analysts thriving professionally in soccer/football and enriching the industry with their ideas. And then we want them to help the next generation.
Exploring areas that extend beyond the fellowship, how do you think this industry would benefit from a fresh style of thinking that this fellowship aims to bring?
I think there's a lot of analytical talent that hasn't entered the market because of obstacles that have nothing to do with ability. That's why these fellowships offer money (to help a person make time for analysis), access to club personnel (because not everyone has connections in the industry), and data, for which I'm very grateful to Opta. I entered this field without any of those obstacles; I appreciate how lucky I was, and I want to remove those obstacles for others.
Where do you see this style of analysis having most impact within a professional team?
Your impact is determined to a great degree by the receptiveness of your colleagues. You can put in a lot of effort to build trust, but there needs to be a basic level of openness. And impact doesn't always come where you expect it – you may start off working on recruiting and then have the biggest impact on tactics, or vice versa. It's all about where you find the open door.
You’ve worked in a number of different industries. How has a more diverse workforce contributed to success, and how can football learn from this and apply these approaches?
My last full-time job before committing myself to soccer/football was as a director at a global consulting firm. We had employees from six continents, and our teams would often be composed of people from different offices. It was fantastic. I learned so much about ways of approaching a challenge and understanding the thinking of the people involved. There are some ideas that you just can't come up with on your own; you need to interact with someone who doesn't have the same background, training, or experience. These ideas are like black swans – you don't even know they're out there to be discovered. But someone different from you does.
Your role has now changed to a more permanent position within the ownership group that manages Swansea City in the Premier League and D.C. United in Major League Soccer. Moving from the consultancy side to an in-house position, what are the biggest changes you’ve noted?
It's been really good for my analytics and, if I'm honest, for my overall well-being. When you have to sell a product to make a living, the selling takes a lot of time and generates pressure and stress. Of course, there's also stress within clubs, and you may find yourself having to 'sell' your ideas to your new colleagues, but at least you can focus on solving problems rather than paying the bills.
To find out more about this fellowship and how you can apply, please click here