How Wharton is leading in sports analytics

As the business of sports analytics transforms teams and leagues around the world, Penn Sports Analytics Group’s data-driven initiative emerges with a competitive edge.

A few weeks after spring term wrapped, Penn’s baseball team embarked on a playoff run on the heels of a remarkable regular season. During the opening round of NCAA regionals, in early June, the Ivy League champs were pitching against Auburn. Wharton economics major Emma Segerman—who at the time was interning for the Milwaukee Brewers, doing international scouting reports—was following Penn’s game closely through ESPN box scores and Twitter updates. As a member of the student-run Penn Sports Analytics Group, Segerman had spent the season working with Penn’s baseball program in advanced scouting; she pulled data on opposing teams, summarized their trends and tendencies, and created scouting reports for the coaching staff ahead of every game. At this match versus the Tigers, the coaches had her report with them in the dugout. Also down on the field was another member of the Sports Analytics Group who was tracking data in real time. On this particular night, after outscoring Auburn in 11 innings, Penn notched another accolade: the first Ivy team ever to beat an SEC team. “If you go to enough baseball games,” says Segerman, “you start to love it.”

Soccer players on a soccer pitch at night.
LAFC takes on Club León in León, Mexico. (Image: Courtesy of LAFC/Wharton Magazine)

This passion for America’s pastime—and knack for numbers—is shared by Abraham “Adi” Wyner, a Wharton professor in statistics and data science. His enthusiasm dates back to when he was just six years old and reading the backs of baseball cards, but in 2003, the wildly influential book “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis, broke open a brand-new industry. The Wharton Sports Business Initiative was established in 2004, and in 2019, the project expanded and rebranded as the Wharton Sports Analytics and Business Initiative (WSABI). Overseeing the program are faculty directors Wyner and Cade Massey, Wharton practice professor in operations, information, and decisions, alongside WSABI director Michelle Young. “With a tradition of finance, Wharton has always been numerically savvy,” says Massey. “We always felt that sports analytics fit well with our strengths as a school.”

Wyner and Massey teamed up with statistics and data science professors Shane Jensen and Eric Bradlow, now the vice dean of Analytics at Wharton, to produce “Wharton Moneyball Radio” on SiriusXM in 2014; since then, hundreds of episodes have been recorded. Topics have covered everything from the probability of drafted baseball players playing—and staying—in the big leagues to a dissection of the unprecedented scoring and winning patterns in the NHL last year. “Our mission is to create content for the community of people who are really interested in understanding sports through a statistical lens,” says Wyner. Nearly a decade later, the “core four” statisticians still conduct multiple interviews every week—adding up to 50 shows annually—with athletes, coaches, analysts, entrepreneurs, and others. “The dialogue is part of the learning,” says Massey. “It keeps us on the cutting edge of what’s going on in and across sports.”

Wyner is especially proud of the research Wharton students do. Their award-winning work is often published in the Wharton Sports Analytics Student Research Journal, which debuted online last year.

Every Friday, a group of students joins Wyner to talk shop: papers, analytic tools, recent news. In the past, that included Sarah Hu, whose concentration was in finance and statistics. She had three internships in pro sports while at Wharton: with the Detroit Lions, the New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia Eagles, leading up to their 2023 Super Bowl. “I worked with two football teams,” she says, “and even within a league, it’s so different as to how much they bought into analytics.” Massey points out that when the sports industry has success stories in analytics—like an impressive Super Bowl run—the industry as a whole benefits: “The Eagles have been recognized as one of the most analytics-forward teams in the league,” he says. “Their success in recent years has been a real boon for analytics.”

This story is by Amy Downey. Read more at Wharton Magazine.