Tsai Center Innovation Series Focuses on Use of Data in Sports Industry

A panel of Dallas-area sports professionals who specialize in analytics, strategy, law, and general operations joined moderator and SMU Dedman School of Law Assistant Professor Sari Mazzurco in March for a discussion on the use of data in sports as part of the Tsai Center’s Innovation Series.

The lunch-time event, called “Game Changers: Sports and Data Privacy,” covered a number of issues faced by college and professional sports teams and their legal departments in the realm of data collection and use.

According to panelist Kaleisha Stuart, a Dedman Law adjunct professor and deputy general counsel for the Dallas Cowboys, the use of data by sports teams is far-ranging and touches every aspect of the team’s operations – both on the field and off.

“Our business is always evolving. We are constantly taking in new information, so we need to have a real sense of what is coming in to the organization and ask the right questions,” she said. “What information is being collected? Who manages that? We’re always managing the risk-reward of data collection.”

While all businesses collect and analyze data to hone their operations, pro sports teams have been at the forefront of this effort as they gather and leverage data to monitor player performance, adjust in-game strategies, and even track ticket and concessions sales so they can refine marketing campaigns.

In the stands and at home, meanwhile, fans are using player statistics and other data to make informed decisions on sports betting and fantasy leagues. It is an industry awash in numbers and sensitive data, all of which requires diligence in its gathering and use – making it a career that is well-suited for those with legal skills.

“Having a law background gives you a broader skillset and technical skills to draw from,” said John Park, who serves as director of strategic football operations for the Cowboys.
“Ethical actions are important,” agreed Kyle Burkardt, who serves as senior vice president of strategy for the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise. “(Both players and) fans can sour on us pretty quickly if they feel we’re acting unethically” in the gathering and use of data.

“Sports teams have been trying to transform on the business side and get their hands on as much data as possible,” he said. “But what are the repercussions of that? Rather than just try and ingest everything, we try and ask specific questions.”

Park said the Cowboys staff collects and analyzes data with an eye toward adding value across the organization. In his role, this applies largely to player performance. “There’s been an evolution in the acceptance of collecting personal data (from players) as they’ve seen that we’re not using it to track a decline in performance, necessarily. We’re using the latest and greatest (techniques), which helps with recruiting.”

Burkardt, of the Dallas Mavericks, said there’s an expectation that teams are doing everything they can to make informed decisions. “How can we make everyone more effective and efficient at their jobs? At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The group – all of whom possess a J.D. or master’s degrees in the legal field – also answered questions from students in attendance about the career path that led them to jobs within the sports industry.

Panelist James Brocato, who also works for the Mavericks as director of analytics – basketball operations, said getting a start within such a fun, competitive industry can be daunting.

“Getting your foot in the door of the sports industry is the hardest part, so I always recommend doing some public work that might get you recognized,” he said. Also, gaining hands-on experience with data collection – and, especially, analysis – is beneficial.

“There’s just so much information,” he said. “We’re getting (data on) every play for every player throughout every game. We’re still a ways away from effectively using all of it, but we have it.”

Professor Mazzurco concluded the event by asking the panel what might be on the horizon for sports and data analysis – virtual reality? Greater use of artificial intelligence?
“Teams already do a lot, but in-game changes might be next,” said Park, of the Cowboys football operations. At the moment, however, he said that league-wide, there’s still not an in-depth knowledge of machine learning and AI.

All agreed, however, that the sky is the limit for the use of data, AI, machine learning and more to positively affect the product on the field, in the stands, and, most important, for the players.