This interview has been edited from the original version written by Iain Ander published on Cat Stats and shared with permission.
Tim Zue, a native New Englander and graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a pioneer in sports-business analytics, particularly for his work managing the financial arm of the Boston Red Sox over the past few seasons.
Do you recommend specific areas of study for college students interested in a career in sports analytics?
Zue: I believe that any classes that relate to using data and information to help solve business problems would be helpful. This would include but not be limited to: finance and accounting, economics, business administration, business analytics, and sports marketing classes.
With that said, while the classes are helpful, I think a voracious appetite to absorb as much information as possible about the business of sports is more important. There is so much information available online these days about the field that I would encourage students to read and absorb on their own outside of the classroom. When I interview candidates for potential jobs, I often ask them what publications or websites they read and follow to get a sense of what they are passionate about, and someone that lists the Sports Business Daily or Fan Graphs or other sites like that generally elicit a positive response from me.
Based on your own postgraduate experience, what advice do you have to share with students as they search for jobs in sports analytics?
Zue: My own path to my current job was quite a winding road. I studied Mechanical Engineering at MIT, worked at a software company during college, took a job as a consultant with Bain & Company upon graduation, taught 8th grade math for four years, and then landed an unpaid internship with the Boston Red Sox before being offered a full-time job as a business analyst in 2004.
I encourage students to realize that they likely aren’t going to get their absolute perfect and ideal job right out of college, so they should not put all of their eggs in one basket searching for that perfect job. Often, the jobs that are available in sports for recent graduates involve outbound ticket sales or entry-level roles in fan services or stadium operations. And while those might not seem like they relate to sports analytics, I believe that they can still be the first step on a path towards that type of career. One of my best and most trusted analysts started his sports career in ballpark operations for the Hawaii Winter Baseball league but that first step put him on a path to his current role with us as Director of Business Development.
How did you become interested in the intersection between financial management and sports analytics?
Zue: I was a very passionate Boston sports fan growing up and I have also always had a love for math, numbers, data, and information throughout my life. I was on the math team in high school and remember playing rotisserie baseball in college with box scores from the newspaper long before fantasy sports were introduced on the internet.
During the nearly 2 years that I spent working as a consultant for Bain & Company, I became passionate about using data and information to help businesses make smarter and more efficient decisions, and I credit that time as the most formative in my career in terms of developing my passion for business.
When I found myself working as an unpaid summer intern for the Boston Red Sox and realized that I could combine my love of sports, data & analytics, and business into a single career, there was a “light bulb moment” in my brain that helped me realize that a career in sports analytics would be absolutely perfect. And since that realization, I have done everything in my power to pursue that career and I have been very fortunate to achieve that goal.
What is your relationship with the Boston Red Sox fan base like and how do you seek to strengthen or grow this base through your own work?
Zue: I am incredibly fortunate to work for a team and brand that has in my (admittedly biased) opinion the most passionate and loyal fans in all of sports. My job is to create products, events and services that allow the Red Sox to strengthen our connection with our fans and ensure that their passion and loyalty remains as strong as possible.
Over the past several years, we have attempted to achieve that goal by introducing programs like our Red Sox Rewards loyalty program for season ticket holders, Red Sox Nation fan club program, and our free Kid Nation program. All of these programs encourage our fans to engage with us and we reward them for that fan engagement with unique prizes and experiences.
In addition, we have used technology to help strengthen those fan connections as well. We now have virtual reality experiences during games and last year introduced augmented reality activations as well. We are constantly thinking about ways to provide content and experiences to our fans via their mobile devices so we can keep the Red Sox at the top of their mind when it comes to their entertainment priorities.
How do sports analysts like yourself defend your practice against rising skepticism?
Zue: I am sure it exists, but I don’t really feel much rising skepticism for analytics in sports. In fact, I feel quite the opposite which is more and more people in the industry supporting the field and a rapidly growing use of data and analytics across all aspects of sports.
If you go back maybe five to seven years, only a few teams in MLB had a dedicated business analytics department, but these days, nearly every club has a department and this area is one where teams are actively adding more resources. A few years ago, we started hosting an analytics conference for MLB clubs and the first year had fewer than 10 clubs participate. This year, we are expecting all 30 clubs to send at least one representative.
What do you see in the future for sports analytics?
Zue: It is difficult to pinpoint one or two that I think are most notable. A few topics that I am excited about and believe will be part of the industry’s future are:
Advances in the pricing of tickets and the intersection of the primary and secondary ticket marketplaces.
Building a comprehensive profile of our fans that uses data about their tendencies and preferences to serve the right messages to the right customers at the right time.
Using mobile devices to better understand the movement of fans within venues to be able to optimize that movement as it relates to wait time in lines, etc.
Zue: As I noted above, while I think the classes that someone takes or the major that they chose to study are important, I don’t think they translate to future success. The most successful employees in our business operation come from a wide variety of backgrounds. I studied Mechanical Engineering but some of my peers studied liberal arts or history or other topics that one would not think are that relevant for a career in sports. The most important thing in my mind is to have a positive attitude and a strong work ethic and a desire to constantly learn and grow. Those characteristics when combined together almost always result in success in my experience.
For a full version of this interview, visit Cat Stats.