Q & A with Spencer Anderson, Manager of Basketball Analytics at Indiana Pacers

Spencer Anderson will be starting full-time as the Manager of Basketball Analytics with the Indiana Pacers in August. He has previous experience as an NBA analytics consultant with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers providing analytics support, advanced statistical analysis, game reports, personnel analysis, and mid-season reviews using advanced metrics and STATS, LLC’s SportVU data.

Spencer also has a wealth of internship experiences which is key to breaking into this industry. He interned at STATS in their Sports Solutions Group which focuses on unique data sets, including SportVU and application platforms to analyze/interact with data. Spencer also interned with the Pacers in their Basketball Operations department where he helped draft preparation and free agency efforts. He also interned with BusinessOfSports.com where he conducted research on college ticket prices, stadium financing, and athletic department finances and finally with the University of Iowa’s Athletic Department’s Compliance Division.

Spencer recently received his JD/MBA from the University of Iowa in May where he participated as the Co-President of the Sports Law Society. Spencer graduated with High Distinction in Finance and Economics from the University of Iowa in 2009. 

GSABR: When did you know you wanted to work in sports and how did you get your first few opportunities in the industry?

SA: I have wanted to get in the sports industry since early in high school. I completed a career project where my dream job was becoming a sports agent (probably because of Jerry McGuire) which led me to learn more about careers in the sports industry. As I learned about different careers, one common theme I heard from those in the industry was the importance of internships and experience.

From there, I continued to learn from those in the industry and tried to find ways where I could contribute immediately. This meant looking to online (Teamwork Online is a great resource) and opportunities with the University of Iowa Athletic Department. Online blogs and Twitter provided the mediums to communicate with others who had experience in the field. From these communications, I received an internship opportunity through Kristi Dosh (now with ESPN) who had started BusinessofCollegeSports.com. This provided an opportunity to show my interest and work on research projects. Finding opportunities within the University of Iowa Athletic Department was more difficult, but I was persistent and knew if given the chance, I would work hard and add value. After talking with many different people in the department, I got my first break with the Compliance Division.

From there, it was all about learning as much as I could and working hard. These first opportunities got my foot into the door and from there I began to network with people in the industry and was recommended Dean Oliver‘s “Basketball on Paper.” After reading his book, I found my calling in basketball analytics. From there, I learned all I could about the world of sports analytics and attended the Sloan Sports Analytics conference at MIT which led to internship opportunities with the Indiana Pacers and STATS, LLC.

GSABR: You’ve consulted for the Timberwolves and the Pacers. What were some of your responsibilities and some of the challenges you faced for each team?

SA: I’ve established great relationships with front office members at both organizations and am thankful for the opportunities I’ve received to provide analytics analysis and statistical reports for the Timberwolves and Pacers. The main focus of the consulting for the Timberwolves was working with STATS, LLC’s SportVU data. My summer internship experience at STATS allowed me to dive into the data and look into different ways to extract value from the deep, rich, data set that SportVU provides. The focus of the projects with the Timberwolves was to transform the data set into actionable information to better make coaching and personnel decisions.

My responsibilities with the Pacers included providing weekly team and player reports during the season, analytics reports for trade scenarios prior to the trade deadline and free agency, and draft projections using advanced analytics techniques.

I think the biggest challenge as an outside consultant is the communication barrier of working remotely. Communication technology has made incredible strides and will continue to make the world a smaller place, but technology cannot overcome the synergies that come from working in the same office. Many front office personnel are not 100% comfortable with analytics techniques which make it imperative for the members of the analytics community to have strong written and verbal skills. Conclusions and concepts in written reports must be communicated clearly and concisely in a remote situation because the author is not just down the hall to answer quick questions or to discuss further iterations of a case study/report.

GSABR: How has your background in finance, along with your J.D. and MBA, helped you acquire the skills necessary for consulting with NBA teams? What other skills did you need to have and how did you acquire them?

SA: I am a firm believer in the importance of education, intellectual curiosity, and having a desire to continue learning (however, after 8 years in school, I’m ready to start my career!). I think each of my degrees has helped me in different ways. My BBA in Finance/Economics helped me to learn basic business concepts and the importance of teamwork. NBA teams are like any other business where different departments must work together to create a good product on the court, memorable experience for fans, and a profit at the end of the day. The front office works closely with the Marketing, Finance, Operations, and other departments to be successful. I know that some NBA analytics departments work both with the Basketball department and Marketing/Sales departments to provide analytics expertise to best target customers and optimize ticket pricing structures. The ability to work in teams is a necessary skill to be a successful professional.

My legal education has allowed me to hone my writing and communication skills. It has also opened my eyes to the variety of legal issues in sport. Legal documents like the CBA, contracts, trademarks, media rights, and other legal issues provide many ways where a legal education can be leveraged to add value to a professional sports team.

The MBA helped to hone my finance and analytics skills. Experience with Excel is a must in this industry with programming, database management, and other statistical software competency close behind. Sports analytics derives its value from data and data management which makes it important for professionals to be comfortable accessing, manipulating, and managing large data sets. Luckily, we live in a world where many of these skills can be learned through new online educational resources like Coursera, Codeacademy, LearnCodetheHardWay.org, Udacity, and others.

GSABR: You’ve worked with STATS SportVU data. What kinds of insights can you get out of it and how do you communicate those insights to coaches and decision makers so that it gets implemented?

SA: As Brian Kopp mentioned in a previous interview, we are still just skimming the surface as to what we can learn from SportVU data. As more teams become SportVU teams, the data becomes more valuable and paints a more complete picture of the NBA game. Early returns have come from better understanding how personnel affect the game using new types of statistics like drives, rebound chances, catch & shoot v. shots off the dribble, and contested v. uncontested shots. The next frontier comes from quantifying defense and identifying play types, however, the potential impact of SportVU reaches far past player analysis. SportVU data is available in near real-time (<60 seconds) which can make an impact on in-game decision making. Trainers have also started using SportVU data to reduce the potential for injuries, optimizing performance through minute/practice management, and ensuring players are physically prepared to play the game. This is a very exciting time for those of us in basketball analytics because of the variety of ways SportVU can help make an impact.

GSABR: How would people know if they’d prefer being employed by a team or being a self-employed consultant? What are the advantages/disadvantages of your unique role?

SA: This is a tough question because it really is a matter of personal preference. A self-employed consultant has more autonomy than being employed by a team. My role (and my guess for other consultants) as a consultant was limited to analytics. Projects are requested and others are self-created studies. Many self-employed consultants have other jobs (some are professors, journalists, bloggers, etc.) which can limit the number of hours dedicated to projects.

As an employee of a team, there are many aspects to running a team where an on-site employee can add value. For example, during my summer internship with the Pacers, I worked on compiling a draft book which included analytical reports along with qualitative reports like background, interview observations, and scouting insights. As an intern, I was able to see how all of this information is integrated into the decision making process.

The opportunities I’ve received within this industry have been incredibly valuable and I’m truly thankful to the people who were willing to take a chance to help me along the way. If any readers have questions or would like further advice about the basketball analytics industry please feel free to email me, connect with me on LinkedIn, or follow me on Twitter. Thanks!

Special thanks to Spencer for his time and insight

Interview by Nik Oza, Georgetown Class of 2016

Follow Spencer on twitter: @Spencejanderson
Follow GSABR on twitter: @GtownSports
Follow Nik on twitter: @nikoza2

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