‘Moneyball’ Made Sports Analytics a Popular Topic, Says Winston
Wayne L. Winston — the sports-analytics pioneer who joined the University of Houston C. T. Bauer College of Business faculty in January — plans to offer his Math and Sports course as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) beginning next year.
Winston, who taught an MBA-level version of the course at Bauer College in the spring, believes the “Moneyball” book and film adaptation starring Brad Pitt have fueled an interest in “the math of sports.”
“This is what I would call a sexy topic, because everybody is interested in it,” says Winston, the author of “Mathletics: How Gamblers, Managers, and Sports Enthusiasts Use Mathematics in Baseball, Basketball, and Football” (Princeton University Press). “To my knowledge, there is nothing like this on the Internet.”
The professor, who teaches in the college’s Department of Decision & Information Sciences, plans to spend the summer working on the project. If all goes as planned, the MOOC would be offered by Coursera in January 2015.
“The University of Houston has many reasons to be excited about this MOOC,” says Jeff Morgan, Associate Provost for Education Innovation and Technology.
“The topic is interesting. The material is accessible to a wide audience. And for many people, this MOOC will serve as a first look at basic statistics being used to answer relevant questions.”
Winston, who taught at Indiana University for 38 years before arriving at the University of Houston, says the MOOC will appeal to anyone from school kids to sports journalists.
A two-time “Jeopardy!” champion and Excel expert who has consulted for Microsoft, Eli Lilly, the U.S. Navy and Cisco, Winston is perhaps best known for revolutionizing the way basketball teams rate performance.
“I get calls from kids all the time who are in high school or just graduated college and love math and sports, and they would like to have some option to study this,” he says. “There’s really not any prerequisite except high school algebra, and I’ll teach them everything else.”
His yet-to-be-named MOOC will combine principles of math, Excel spreadsheets and sabermetrics, which is the term for the empirical analysis of baseball commonly referred to as “Moneyball.” (Author Michael Lewis popularized the practice with his 2003 book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” and Pitt appeared in the 2011 movie based on the book.)
Winston’s mastery of sports numbers-crunching preceded the “Moneyball” brand. In the late 1990s, he collaborated with sports statistician Jeff Sagarin to apply sabermetrics to basketball. The partners eventually worked for the Dallas Mavericks and the New York Knicks.
If the professor can channel his passion for math and sports as effectively online as in the classroom, his MOOC will be a popular offering.
According to Bauer MBA student Tilesh Patel, Winston has a knack for teaching complex theories in fun, sports-related formats. Patel enrolled in the professor’s Math and Sports course in the spring with “zero” knowledge about the subject and ended up with a job as a data analyst for the fantasy sports website rotogrinders.com.
“His class has been the most fulfilling to me, in terms of business knowledge that I have learned,” says Patel, who will serve as Winston’s graduate assistant on the development of the MOOC. “This is the guy who wrote the Microsoft Press books for Excel, so I have been honored to learn all the nuances under him.”
Patel thinks the MOOC has the potential to reach a wide audience.
“Sports analytics is so niche not a lot of people are teaching it, and now you have the guy (in the field) teaching it at the University of Houston,” Patel says. “I also know a lot of people wanted to take his class, but they didn’t exactly know what it entailed, so now they can get a sneak peek at it.”
“Winston’s MOOC should draw many additional people into this topic, and possibly encourage them to take their studies a step further,” says Morgan, a UH math professor. “We would love to see all of them at the University of Houston.”
By Wendell Brock