Jacob Holden had a dream job, and it was a very specific one – to become a sports data scientist

Growing up in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs, Jacob was indoctrinated from an early age into the cult of the St Kilda Football Club. He played junior footy until, he says, “it was evident I had neither the skill nor the strength to compete.” But he still loved football, so as a teenager he trained to become an umpire.

Aside from the Saints, Jacob’s other great love was maths. After high school, he studied commerce at Monash University, with a major in econometrics. Upon graduation, he found work in the financial sector, but he knew he wanted to do something that combined his two great loves.

“I have always been passionate about all sports,” he says, “and I knew I wanted to work in sports and maths – my two passions – from a young age.”

This led Jacob to the Master of Sports Analytics, which gave him the chance to build his skills and work towards his unique area of interest as it was “one of the only courses of its kind that was anything like what I wanted to do,” he says.

New studies, new fields

Jacob enrolled in 2018 and studied online and on campus in Melbourne. He was excited to not only be working towards his dream, but to also be in a field that feels brand new. Sports analytics is a rapidly growing area – 20 years ago, it essentially didn’t exist. Now every major professional sports franchise employs data analytics to get an edge in performance.

“It definitely feels like I’m playing a part in expanding a new space. Compared to working in the established field of finance, there are so many areas that are unexplored and things I can do that nobody has done before.”

Jacob witnessed this first-hand in the degree itself. Learning in an ever-evolving field, the coursework needed to be current to reflect the changing landscape.

“Compared to other courses that largely contain archaic content, I found the Master of Sport Analytics to be actually quite relevant and up-to-date, which is impressive given how frequently new developments arise in this space.”

Jacob thinks his studies will help him both navigate the current analytics landscape and adapt to imminent changes. He marvels that, “It’s possible the job I’ll have in five years doesn’t even exist yet.”

If all of this sounds too heady, for Jacob it was a blast. “The ability to complete interesting sport-related projects makes it not really feel like studying at all. It’s like spending a couple of years on your hobby and being awarded a Master’s degree at the end of it!”

Living the dream

During the second half of his degree, Jacob took a huge step towards realising his dream through an internship with the Carlton Football Club. He says, “[I could] access all sorts of AFL data and manipulate it using the skills gained in my degree in order to solve real problems Carton were facing.”

Through this experience, he was able to see the inner workings of an AFL club, and it was flexible enough to fit around his studies and his day job at NAB. While working for a bank and a football club might seem like entirely different worlds, Jacob sees similarities in each role.

“Understanding the data landscape and what data is available; combining and manipulating data and making calculations; making predictive models to help understand issues; visualising data in a way that is easy to understand; and presenting findings and visualisations with coaches and stakeholders.”

After his internship with Carlton was up, Jacob was hired by the club as professional data analyst as a contract worker. This marked the culmination of his lifelong dream and marked his first step into a rapidly growing industry.

The degree is the key

Jacob thanks his Master’s degree for helping him realise his dream. “This degree gave me all the skills I needed to be hired by Carlton and produce good analysis for them,” he says.

It also helped his role at NAB, providing that further study often has positive yet unintended benefits. “[My studies] enabled me to improve my skills at my day job, and [that] was a big factor in enabling me to perform highly and obtain promotions.”

It’s no surprise then that Jacob is particularly enthusiastic about his degree and experiences and is an acolyte ready to spread the gospel.

So, for anyone out there harbouring these twin loves – maths and sports – and dreaming of data analysis in a sport setting, Jacob says he “wouldn’t think twice” about pursuing the Master of Sport Analytics.

“The quality of the teaching, the assignments and the industry connections was of such a high standard. It was the only way I was able to get my foot in the door in the AFL industry.”