Spaghetti & Advanced Analytics

Categories: General Info
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: March 12, 2014

For being a German-Russian/Norwegian from North Dakota, I make one tasty spaghetti.  Cooking is one of the few hobbies that I get to indulge with my academic career as it’s difficult to claim that one is too busy to eat.  If you come to my department and ask my co-workers, they will tell you that they’ve all heard about my fabulous spaghetti.  I’m getting the feeling that they’re all getting a little tired of hearing about it without getting to eat any of it.

Now imagine I invited you over to my house for spaghetti.  Or rather, that I told you I would make my spaghetti for you if you would be willing to pay for all the ingredients that go into it.  You’ve heard me boast about my spaghetti.  You know that I talk about the time and care that goes into my spaghetti.  You decide that you are so intrigued that you’ll put down some cash to finally get the privilege of eating this wonderful spaghetti.  You might even start imagining what you’re going to get on the way over.  What could be in this oh-so-hyped spaghetti?  Is it a secret, homemade sauce?  Basil-infused deep-fried meatballs? (Sidebar:  mmmmm…basil-infused deep-fried meatballs)  You won’t know until the meal is prepared, but you’re thinking it must be something good.  Finally, the spaghetti is ready and I drop this in front of you. What would your reaction be?

At best, you’re justifiably annoyed.  At worst, you would curse my name and flee the house, using very forceful language about how much you’d rather be at Olive Garden right now.  You spent good money on something that a college sophomore creates every other day.  Beyond just being upset, you want to make sure that you never get tricked like that again.  What’s your solution?  How are you going to make sure you don’t get bamboozled into buying buttered noodles from a fast talker again?  The solution you propose is important because it calls into question the nature of proprietary knowledge and could ultimately dictate the ability of restaurateurs to make a profit on their business.  Do you want me to open the kitchen next time and show you how I made the spaghetti?  Do you simply not trust anything I say ever again, even after I’ve learned that buttered noodles are not what the rest of the world would call “tasty spaghetti?”

But I’m not a restaurateur (even though that spaghetti is really good, you guys).  I am an academic.  In my professional life, I don’t have a restaurant, but I do have research ideas that could get funded and pay my salary.  I may not have spaghetti, but I do have a model that predicts professional level success from college level inputs.  But I didn’t create the model to be exclusively about football.  It could apply to any interdependent situation.  Football just happens to be an interesting place for me to apply certain ideas.  The fact that the “field” of “sport analytics” is a growing area of interest is also nice because it makes it easier for me to spread interest in my research.  The more people that are interested in my research, the more valuable my ideas are, which means I could eat and pay my mortgage thanks to said ideas.  However, sports analytics as a field has a problem.

About 10 days ago, about 2,000 sports executives, academics, and analytically minded people all took a long and expensive trip to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.  They went there, by many accounts, for the express purpose of not talking to one another.  Sure, conversation was had, jokes were made, papers were presented, and libations were served but by all the accounts I’ve read or listened to nobody officially talked “spaghetti.”  Which is ultimately the problem that sports analytics is developing.

In a competitive environment, having knowledge that no one else has confers an advantage.  Sports teams have picked up on this notion and begun to make their data, their data analytic tools, and their methodologies private and proprietary.  The message to people like me is clear:  Unless the process is secret, it isn’t worth much.  This is a problem for me as I would very much like to use my brain to get money to eat.

So here I sit, not quite sure where to go.  I have no incentive to give anyone details about the methodology, but won’t gain any credibility until I do.  This blog hasn’t particularly taken off in popularity.  I’ve tried to publish my methodology in academic journals but gotten three rejections, two of which were “Well, we think this is neat, but it’s not really a fit for our journal.” And I can’t exactly take it to a football team because 1) only secret knowledge is valuable and 2) NFL teams are not particularly incentivized to adopt useful advanced statistics in the first place.  Given this environment, exactly what is a quant to do?

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