May 03, 2017

Assistant professor Luke Bornn’s work in the growing field of sports analytics so impressed the NBA’s Sacramento Kings that they offered him the position of VP of Strategy and Analytics.

Not many faculty get the opportunity to literally get called up to the major leagues, but Bornn is an exception.  His interest in the burgeoning field has taken him from Electronic Arts to teaching positions at Harvard University and SFU’s department of Statistics and Actuarial Science. Throughout, he has maintained ties to professional sports, working closely with basketball, soccer, and baseball teams.

Luckily for Bornn, professional teams are starting to recognize the value of analytics. Bornn says, “Every team in MLB (Major League Baseball) is investing in analytics and it is just starting to catch on in basketball. If teams don’t invest in analytics, they’ll soon be at a disadvantage because other teams will be benefiting from insights garnered from these huge amounts of data”.

Bornn explains that massive amounts of data generated by a half-dozen cameras on the court track spatial and temporal movements of every player at 25 times per second. Analysis of hundreds of millions of rows of data per game allows scientists to turn information such how many times the player handled the ball, the speed at which he moves, how many passes he made and the number of rebounding opportunities he had, to determine which moves are the most advantageous and effective.

Besides predicting win-loss records, analytics can also be used in assessing new recruits and determining how they might fit in with the team.

Bornn says there is always a challenge in putting theory to practice, but he predicts his biggest hurdle will be how best to communicate his findings with coaches and team executives. “You can’t just present a huge table of numbers, you have to visualize it and turn the information into actionable items. That means putting your findings into context, pointing out players who exemplify what you’re discussing and phrasing your findings into terms like “this could make one more win”.

Bornn advises students wanting to join the field to go above and beyond their studies and treat their academic background as a basic foundation. He says, “If you want to stand out, use the tools you’re taught in school and take the extra time and effort to dig into the plethora of data that’s available publicly and focus on issues that are going to catch the coach’s attention.”

Bornn says that in building his team, the best applicants have a love and knowledge of the game, strong programming and modeling skills and the proven ability to take raw data and turn it into practical insights.

SFU students, however, just might have a leg up. Bornn declares, “SFU is probably the best school in the world for sports analytics.”


Interested SFU students may also join the Sports Analytics Club.