George Li begins his third season with the Raiders, his second in his present role. Li, who manages databases and develops research reports for coaches, player personnel and management based on statistical trends, was with the Raiders in 2011 as a defensive assistant. He previously spent five years as lead researcher at the NFL Network in Culver City, Calif., and also worked one year as a researcher at ESPN. The Millbrae, Calif., native graduated from UC Riverside with a degree in business administration in 2003. (From Oakland Raiders Media Guide)
GSABR: When did you know that you wanted to work in sports? How did you break into the industry?
GL: I always knew I wanted to work in sports growing up but wasn’t sure if it would ever become a reality. I actually wanted to be a sports writer initially and enjoyed writing for the school paper in high school. I broke into the industry when I was a senior in college at UC Riverside. I went to the ESPN Zone in Anaheim to check out a live shot of KABC’s sports segment for the local news with sports anchor Rob Fukuzaki, a fellow Asian that I was hoping to be able to chat with for tips on breaking into the industry. Rob noticed me observing his news hit and was kind enough to autograph his scripts and give them to me after his segment. I proceeded to tell him about my passion for sports and inquire about any sports internships at the news station. He gave me the name of the person to contact and I followed up with that person and was hired shortly after as a sports intern at the station.
GSABR: How similar/different were your experiences with ESPN, NFL Network and the Raiders and how did you transition from one to the next?
GL: My experiences at ESPN and NFL Network were very similar, since the boss who hired me at NFL Network came from the same ESPN research department that I was working in at the time. That familiarity helped me to quickly adapt and learn on the fly at NFL Network, which allowed me to thrive when thrown into the fire. ESPN was a great learning experience for me since they have a wealth of resources and great people to learn from and mentor me so I could learn the industry from the ground up. That experience gave me confidence when I left for NFL Network. Because there was a smaller staff at NFL Net and it was very much still a start-up when I joined the staff, it allowed me to do more and have a lot of opportunities right off the bat when I got hired. Being at the NFL Network for five years, I developed a great relationship with a lot of former players, coaches, and front office executives and got to pick their brains about how I could apply my analytical background in statistics to helping an NFL team win games. It was my relationship with Rod Woodson that got me in with the Raiders when he was hired as the cornerbacks coach in Oakland. He has been a great mentor to me and introduced me to Chuck Bresnahan, the Raiders defensive coordinator at the time, who was kind enough to give me an opportunity to be a part of the defensive staff. In my current role, I use a lot of the resources and skills I learned at ESPN and NFL Network to work quickly, efficiently, and accurately to serve the needs of the team and staff.
GSABR: What is your day-to-day work like with the Raiders? What have been some of the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your job?
GL: Without getting into too much detail, my main role here is to be a resource of statistical research and analysis for the coaching and personnel staff. The most challenging part is probably being able to answer every conceivable question that could come up. I try my best to exhaust every possible resource to track down all the various types of information that may be requested as quickly as I can, but sometimes there is information that hasn’t been tracked and can only be done manually, which will take longer than the hours that we have in a game week. The most rewarding aspect is definitely being a part of the team and the relationships that you develop when you have everybody in the organization rallying together and working to compete and win games at the highest level of the greatest sport in the world. Most companies’ main goal is to maximize profits, but in our industry, it’s all about winning and everything else is secondary. There are a lot of great people in this business and when you genuinely enjoy working together with the people on the staff, it makes all those late nights and long hours during the season seem like less of a grind and much more rewarding.
GSABR: In your experience, what areas of football operations, for example player evaluation, salary cap, in game strategy, draft, free agency, etc. use statistical analysis the most? And what math/stat/programming/business/people skills should someone have in order to do good and actionable analysis?
GL: I think with all the statistical resources available today, you can really apply analytics to every aspect of football operations listed above. Teams have used statistical analysis to study the tendencies of opponents for quite some time now and that will always be the case. As far as player evaluation goes, regardless of whether it is for the draft or free agency, stats will only serve as one component of the process, rather than telling the whole story. You still have to project how that player will fit in your system unless they’re a specialist (kicker, punter, long-snapper, returner). Football is such a specialized game and there are so many moving parts that you need to look at the collective profile of the player, rather than merely isolating or trying to identify a magical stat to define the player.
To be a great statistical analyst, it is more important to have football intelligence than mathematical aptitude. It is critical to know the lingo, have common sense, and be able to communicate your analysis clearly, confidently, and effectively in order for it to be taken seriously. This isn’t a + b = c. Sometimes, the best stats aren’t all that complicated or hard to figure out. I always try to put myself in the perspective of the person receiving the report or analysis. What type of information would I want to know as a player, or as a coach that would make me better at performing my job? When you approach your analysis that way, it should give you confidence, and that confidence and enthusiasm will translate when you are presenting your report or data and it will be much more likely to be implemented and translate onto the playing field.
GSABR: Finally, what would you recommend for students looking to work in football operations, or sports in general?
GL: First of all, you have to love sports, and I mean really, really love it. There will always be more supply than demand and it is an incredibly tough field to break into. You have to love sports so much that working in sports for long hours, low pay, nights, weekends, and holidays is still worth it to you. Otherwise, it won’t be worth it.
You also have to be persistent and realistic, and not be afraid to start at the bottom. Eric Mangini started as a ball boy for the Browns. Commissioner Roger Goodell got his start in the NFL mail room. Plenty of NFL executives and head coaches started out as unpaid interns. Spend some time researching the bios of people whose position you would like to have one day and study how they got to where they are. I used to go to Barnes and Noble in my free time and just read about sports jobs, the pros and cons of the industry and profession I was looking to get into, or go online to read about cover letters, resumes, and the interview process to prepare myself so I would be ready if and when that career-changing phone call comes.
Approach things from the view of the other party. Why should they hire you over everybody else? Learn what makes you stand out so you can highlight your strengths effectively. When you do get the job, continue with that line of thought. What information or analysis would I want to see if I was the GM or head coach or coordinator and how would I want that presented so I can effectively use that information?
Finally, this business is all about relationships. It’s not just who you know, but how well do they know you and ultimately, would they hire you or vouch for you? Networking takes time to develop and there’s a fine line between being genuinely friendly vs. being a nuisance, overly aggressive, or looking for a handout. You don’t want to be known as a person who only reaches out when you need something. Seek mentors and return the favor when you are in a position to do so. When you have researched what skills you need for this field, have taken the time to acquire those skills and qualifications, and combine that with persistence, confidence, a positive attitude, insatiable passion for sports and are likeable and trustworthy, then it is only a matter of time before you get your big break. The toughest part is breaking in, but the good thing is once you’re in, you’re in, and the barrier to entry is gone for good.
Special thanks to George for his time and insight
Interview by Nik Oza, Georgetown Class of 2016