Written by: Daniel Liang
The CMU in Sports Series details the impacts of past and present CMU students, faculty, post-docs, and staff who have made an impact in the world of sports analytics. The second profile in this series features an interview with Ashley Brio, a former CMU graduate student in Decision Science.
Millions of kids around the world dream of making it to the NBA. They have hoop dreams of lacing up on the hardwood in front of thousands of cheering fans. They spend hours in pursuit of these dreams, practicing their crossovers to perfection at the local park, hoping to embarrass the next person who is unfortunate enough to guard them. However, it’s no secret that the odds of making it to the league are incredibly low. The average height of an NBA player is 6 feet 7 inches, and players need to dedicate hours every day honing their skills to even have a chance. Just being able to play at the college level is already hard enough, and only ~1.3% of NCAA-level basketball players are ever drafted.
Despite these odds, Ashley Brio, who is a CMU graduate, is a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks are currently having an incredible season, holding the best record in the league. Their young superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is looking to collect his first MVP award, and the team is poised to make a deep playoff run with championship aspirations. The Bucks are talented, no doubt about it, but behind every NBA team’s talented roster of elite athletes is a dedicated front office working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the team is able to perform the best that it can. Brio is an integral part of the Bucks’ front office, serving as its basketball analytics manager. “Depending on the time of year, [my job] is different and focused toward a specific event like the draft, trade deadline, etc.,” says Brio. “Generally speaking, [my] goal is to help our team and organization be better.”
Brio graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in Decision Science before completing his Master’s at the Heinz College. He had always had a passion for sports and, after moving back to his hometown of Tucson, he founded a sports analytics program at the University of Arizona. Brio says that, since the Mathematics Department at the University of Arizona was seeking ways to expand its impact, he suggested the idea of a sports analytics program to his father, who was a professor in the department. Brio worked alongside faculty members and Ph.D. students to track and interpret data across a variety of sports. They measured the consistency of players in golf tournaments, analyzed the effects of strength and conditioning in women’s softball, and tracked ball movements in women’s soccer. The program was a success and eventually it turned into a regular course in applied statistics at the university.
After a period working at Raytheon Missile Systems, Brio applied for an opening with the Bucks. “Things kind of worked out from there. I was always into basketball and stats, so if there’s a way to do that as your job, that’s probably the best part [of working for an NBA team].”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Brio, who offered some words of wisdom for anyone looking to break into the sports analytics industry.
Q: What sort of skills (technical and non-technical) are the most important if a student wants to become involved in the sports analytics industry?
Brio: “From a technical standpoint, I would broadly say statistics, programming, and specific sport expertise. Carnegie Mellon is a great resource for learning statistics and programming. Cleaning large data sets, web scraping, extrapolating significant results, and mining meaningful insights: these are the foundation for quantitative analysis, in sports or any other industry. In my experience, subject matter expertise is better learned in practice. Ask yourself a question, research existing literature, see what data is available, and try to answer your original question. Often the results will lead to even more interesting questions. Keep doing this process and like a muscle, your analytic understanding of the game will grow.
From a non-technical standpoint, strong communication is key. Easy-to-read visualizations, telling a compelling story, and crafting an argument using numbers and facts. Knowing your audience is also incredibly important. Everyone interprets information differently and reading a room is a skill in itself. Some people may want the gritty details while others only have a few seconds to hear what you have to say.”
Q: What opportunities at CMU would you recommend for students to take advantage of?
Brio: “Carnegie Mellon is like a candy shop of opportunities for sports analytics: the sports analytics club, summer undergraduate research, and the supportive facility and peer network. Take advantage of these. Do a project for a class, do it as a hobby, apply for a research grant, and don’t be afraid to reach out for guidance. There are a lot of very intelligent and connected people at CMU.”
Q: Are there any courses you remember to be especially useful?
Brio: “There’s the stats classes with Gordon Weinberg. Those are your fundamentals. I took econometrics, which was taught by Richard Scheines, who is now the dean - great class. There’s a class called Reason, Passion, and Cognition. That was a fantastic class. We went into a lot of case studies about how people use heuristics and judgement to make decisions, and that can be applied to sports, especially when there’s not a lot of information.”
When asked what he would say to his freshman year self if given the chance, Brio said emphatically to try new things. “The big thing at Carnegie Mellon is that it’s a good time to take chances, reach out to people. Try to leave your comfort zone. At Carnegie Mellon, people are so different and come from different backgrounds, and it’s just a melting pot, so take advantage of it.”