Analytics at Wharton
Wharton Sports Analytics Research Lab – Student Spotlight
For most students, the transition from spring to summer presents an opportunity to wrap up finals, close their textbooks, and enjoy a relaxing few months before starting back up again. That’s not quite the case for students in the Wharton Sports Analytics Research Lab (WSARL), a new offering from the Wharton Sports Analytics and Business Initiative (WSABI), created for select undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania.
The WSARL is a two-part program that first provides participants with an intensive five-week session for learning advanced statistical concepts, taught by Ryan Brill, a PhD candidate in applied mathematics & computational science and a member of the research team at WSABI. Students take the lessons learned from Brill and apply them to a sports research project of their choosing.
For some of the students, like rising senior Zeke Kelz, SEAS’24, the WSARL presented an opportunity to not only learn new concepts, but to revisit certain ideas they learned in class and take them in new and exciting directions. “I was one of the older students in the program,” said Kelz. “So, what I got out of it was being able to really harp down on these concepts that I had seen one or two times in statistics and data sciences classes.”
According to Kelz, an average day during the research period of the WSARL includes two-to-three hours of lectures in the morning, where Brill introduces new statistical concepts, models, or mathematical ideas designed to get the students up to speed with higher-level topics. The team then breaks for lunch before returning to work on their chosen research project well into the evening.
The focused nature of the WSARL provided Kelz and a few others with the opportunity to pursue what they call a “continuous expected goals model” for soccer using a large player-tracking dataset they acquired from a professional team. “Wherever the ball is at any point on the pitch, there’s some expectation that if you took a shot from that location, in that situation, there would be some fraction of the time when it would result in a goal,” Kelz explains. “So, we’re trying to come up with what fraction of the time that would be.”
The team plans on continuing their research into this model throughout the upcoming school year.
“I’ve been going to Phillies games my entire life, and getting to share that with some of the students who have never been to a baseball game before is something I look forward to every year.”
– Zeke Kelz, SEAS’24
At the conclusion of the five-week research period, members of the WSARL switch their focus to the Wharton Moneyball Academy, an annual offering from Wharton Global Youth and WSABI that sees dozens of high school juniors and seniors from around the world coming together on Wharton’s campus to learn math and statistics through the lens of sports.
During this time, WSARL members serve as Teaching Assistants (TAs) for Adi Wyner, professor of statistics and data science, faculty co-director of WSABI, and the instructor of Wharton Moneyball Academy. At the end of the Academy’s three-week curriculum, students present findings from their own research projects.
The duties – and benefits – of being a TA for the Moneyball Academy extend well beyond the classroom, however. Kelz and his WSARL peers got several opportunities throughout the summer to soak up the sports culture in and around Philadelphia. First, they accompanied Moneyball Academy students on a tour of the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey. After participating in a Q&A panel with a number of the organization’s resident analysts, students got to see where 76ers players practice, eat, and workout.
Later in the summer, TAs accompanied the students to a Phillies game at Citizen’s Bank Park. “As a Philly local, I’ve been going to Phillies games my entire life, and getting to share that with some of the students who have never been to a baseball game before is something I can look forward to every year,” said Kelz.
This summer is the culmination of four years with WSABI for Kelz, who first attended the Moneyball Academy as a high school student before returning as a TA. He has served as the head TA the past two summers. “What keeps me coming back is all of the people that are in WSABI and the opportunities that come as a result of being involved. When I was in high school and I was a student in the program, the TAs really made a difference for me,” he explains. “I always wished I had people I could look up to and speak to about what I wanted to do and what was next for me, and I didn’t always feel like I had those people. Having an opportunity to maybe make a difference in one of the student’s lives and be that person for them is another really big part of what keeps me coming back.”
Because the Moneyball Academy isn’t a credit-based course, all of the students that attend are doing so to further their own understanding of sports analytics, and nothing more. It’s a pursuit that Kelz admires, and says results in an active, highly engaged student body. “My first year as a TA, I was definitely more involved in their day-to-day work, trying to make sure they had the best projects possible. Whereas during this year, more than any other, I’ve been more concerned with getting to know them. The students know they have deadlines. They’re all smart kids that want to get work done. My job doesn’t necessarily need to be watching the work that they’re doing but rather helping them learn the skills they need.”
With senior year around the corner, the first Wharton Sports Analytics Research Lab is the only one that Kelz and other head TAs will get to participate in, but they’re already feeling the impact it’s made on their skillset, and they have ultimate confidence in the program moving forward.
“My experience at Penn with sports and data analytics has been pretty unique,” says Kelz. “There aren’t many other universities where I could have an experience like this and have an opportunity to help students, but also continue to further myself as a statistician and a data analyst.”