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Panthers, Dolphins Team Up for Analytics Course at FAU

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

BOCA RATON, Fla. - Brian Macdonald still considers himself a teacher at heart.

After working for six years as a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Macdonald, who played club hockey at Lafayette College, now spends his days using data and analytics to advise some of the brightest minds in NHL in his current position as Director of Hockey Analytics with the Florida Panthers.

"I definitely miss academia and I miss the teaching part, but one thing I knew I would be doing with the Panthers was teaching," said Macdonald, who taught Mathematical Sciences at West Point from 2008-14. "Whether it's explaining the results of things to people in Hockey Ops or working with younger analysts and teaching them new statistical techniques, I knew I'd get my fix of teaching."

It's a shared passion for teaching that brought Macdonald to Dennis Lock.

This summer, Lock, who serves as Director of Analytics for the Miami Dolphins, joined Macdonald in hosting a special three-week course for MBA students on the utilization of analytics in sports at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

"He reached out to me and asked me if I'd be interested," said Lock, who has spent the past three seasons with the Dolphins after earning a PHD in statistics from Iowa State. "The timing was really good because we're both kind of in our offseasons right now. We also had some great people come out and help us and I think it all turned out great."

Although they now consider themselves a part of a tight analytics brotherhood among South Florida's professional sports teams, Lock and Macdonald were actually first put into contact several years ago through a mutual friend, Michael Schuckers, a fellow data lover who currently works as an Associate Professor of Statistics at St. Lawrence University.

"It helped that we knew each other and had already shared some panels in the past, so we kind of knew how each other think and how to approach sports analytics as a topic," Lock said of his relationship with Macdonald. "I think it was just a great way to go about it. He can talk about what he's doing with the Panthers and I could talk about what I'm doing with the Dolphins and we could just tie-in major concepts while we're doing that."

In the first two sessions of the course, which ran from 6:15 p.m. until 10 p.m. for three consecutive Thursdays in late July and early August, Macdonald and Lock discussed the various uses of data and analytics in their respective sports, such as charting a skater's up-and-down shooting percentage or identifying how a quarterback will perform in certain situations.

For the final session, however, Macdonald surprised students by inviting several members of the Panthers staff to join the class in order to share how data and analytics are currently being used to improve their own departments, such as marketing and sales. Three members of the organization's upper management -- Chief Technical Officer John Spade, Chief of Staff Sean McCaffrey and Vice President of Marketing Genya Adesso - also teamed up to field questions from students on an informative, laid-back panel.

For the numerous graduate students that attended the class either in person or online, this multi-faceted presentation served as the perfect entry point to the growing world of sports analytics.

"At first I was a little hesitant about [the course] because I thought some of these things would be way over my head," said Domenica Jones, who is working towards her MBA in Sport Management after earning a BA in Communications. "But eventually when they started talking about things like contract negotiations and the sports performance part of it, it really started to interest me…. I'm not a math person or a numbers person, but after this class I really found out that it's not all about that."

With their inaugural three sessions now in the books, Macdonald and Lock hope to continue improving upon the foundation of their sports analytics course with hopes of bringing it back to FAU next summer.

"We're trying to teach these students how they'll likely have to think about things in the future," Macdonald said. "In the future they're most likely not going to be doing a lot of the data analysis themselves, but they'll be working with people that are analyzing the data and they'll need to be able to understand the results and interpret it. They're going to need to know these things in order to make their decisions."

"I want these kids to walk away with a better understanding of the entire process. A lot of time people only see the final results without understanding what goes on behind the scenes. It's about acquiring the data, cleaning the data and then managing the data. I think how much time that takes isn't understood and maybe even undervalued."

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