Interview with Neil Paine (Analytics Consultant for Atlanta Hawks)
Since graduating Georgia Institute of Technology in 2009, Neil Paine has done work with Basketball-Reference, written for ESPN, and is now an analytics consultant for the Atlanta Hawks. Follow Neil on Twitter @Neil_Paine.
SA Blog: Can you give a brief background of your education and interests?
Sure – I have a BS from Georgia Tech in Science, Technology, and Culture, which sounds like a made-up major but has actually served me quite well with its combination of math and writing skills. I also nearly had enough credits to get a minor in Econ, another skillset that has come in handy over the years.
SA Blog: You previously worked as a freelance basketball writer for ESPN and a writer for Sports Reference. How important is it to be able to write effectively, especially with analytics?
I think it’s pretty crucial to develop some kind of strong communication skill to complement your research. It doesn’t necessarily have to be writing (although I think most of us grew up reading Bill James and learning to break sports down via the written word), but you need to be able to effectively convey findings to your audience – whether they be team executives or readers at a media outlet.
SA Blog: What challenges arise when trying to write with an emphasis on analytics and how do you overcome them?
It’s always a bit of a high-wire act to write about analytics for a more general audience, though it’s a good problem to have because it typically means you’ve found a larger base of readers. There was definitely a period of adjustment when I went from writing the Basketball-Reference blog, and writing for Basketball Prospectus, to writing for an ESPN audience, even under the Insider umbrella. You take it for granted that the hardcore stat people already know certain terms or concepts, but you need to remember to explain those ideas to readers who are newer to the analytics world. Sometimes it’s easy to forget which kind of audience you’re really writing for.
SA Blog: You recently were accepted as a Basketball Analytics Consultant for the Atlanta Hawks. (Congrats!) What's the difference between a "Basketball Analytics Consultant" and a "Basketball Operations Analyst"?
Thanks! Regarding the job titles, I think most teams seem to have different names or key words to refer to their stat people, and more than a few teams are actually still figuring out where the analytic types fit into their front office structure. Having two different titles may simply be a matter of semantics, or it could just as easily signify very different responsibilities. It varies from team to team.
SA Blog: Many "traditionalists" adamantly deny the value of analytics. What would you say to them?
I don’t really take an adversarial position in the whole “statheads-vs-traditionalists” debate (if there even is such a thing anymore). It’s all just information. And it’s never a bad thing to have more information at your disposal, whether it’s scouting data or advanced analytics. Anybody who closes themselves off to either avenue is only hurting themselves.
SA Blog: What is your favorite thing about working in sports?
Probably just the fact that I actually get to make money doing something that I love and have been crazy-passionate about (to the point of obsession) since I was a kid. I’ve been doing this professionally for almost 5 years, and there are times when it still doesn’t seem real. I’m very thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had, and I realize every day that it’s been a privilege.
SA Blog: What advice do you have for students interested in breaking into sports business, specifically sports analytics?
Do something unique, something cool that other people aren’t doing; then pour everything you’ve got into it. I realize that’s a lot easier said than done, but there are still plenty of opportunities out there for students who want to get noticed in this business. It’s a field where you constantly see people break in with very diverse backgrounds, and the common thread is that they saw a vacuum in the marketplace for certain pieces of data, or certain ways of processing that data, and they just decided one day to fill that void. The beauty of the internet is that, if it’s of value to a team or a media outlet, important people will eventually find your work.
Special thanks to Neil for his time and insights. Follow Neil on Twitter here.