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Former Navy pilot Brian Burke joins ESPN as senior analytics specialist

ESPN’s resources offer a great deal of very rich data, and I think I can make good use of it to provide fresh, compelling insights.
– Brian Burke

ESPN announced today that Brian Burke, founder of the popular website Advanced Football Analytics and a leading voice in NFL Analytics, is joining the company as a senior analytics specialist in the Stats & Information Group (SIG).

In his new role, Burke will expand upon his previous work to ensure ESPN has the best-in-class football analytics. He also will help ESPN develop analytic tools in other sports.

Before Burke officially starts next week, Front Row spoke with him about sports analytics, this new opportunity with ESPN, and his previous career as an officer and aviator with the United States Navy.

You founded Advanced Football Analytics in 2007. After working independently the past eight years, why did you decide to join ESPN?
I’m looking forward to being part of a larger team and joining a group of talented analysts. I’m also eager to bring analytics to a broader audience, and to try to change its perception as a bunch of scary, convoluted statistics. At its heart, analytics is just sound common-sense analysis based on good evidence. Everyone in sports, even the people who claim to be skeptical of analytics, use stats to back up their decisions and opinions. Since we’re all using stats, we might as well use the right numbers in the best way we can.

Brian Burke
Brian Burke

What are you most excited about, in terms of the work you will now be doing with ESPN?
The folks on the Stats & Info analytics team are very talented, and I’m thrilled to be working alongside them. ESPN’s resources offer a great deal of very rich data, and I think I can make good use of it to provide fresh, compelling insights.

Just how much has the use of analytics grown in football, particularly the NFL, in recent years?
Teams have always used stats to some degree, but were usually limiting the analysis to very basic stuff – scouting opponent tendencies for example. But since about eight years ago, football analytics has grown from a few kooks on the Internet, myself included, to the point where about half of the NFL teams have at least one full-time analyst. The lessons that the analysis provides doesn’t always permeate the front office, so we may have to wait another generation or so for analytics to take over pro football the way it did baseball.

I’ve been hesitant to get back up in the air, mostly because flying is so unforgiving of mistakes. But the Hornet always felt different – I’ll fly anything with an afterburner and ejection seat in it.
– Brian Burke on his planned return to flying for the first time in 10 years

In the Navy, you were a pilot who flew the F/A-18C Hornet and then you worked as a defense contractor. How did you become involved in football analytics?
When I left the Navy and stopped flying, I had a few spare brain cells that my 9-to-5 existence didn’t require. I’ve always been a football fan and I’m naturally curious, so I started crunching some numbers as a hobby. I realized that sports and combat aren’t so different, at least at an analytical level. They are both zero-sum, two-player “games” and similar principles apply. I thought that if advanced analytics was good enough for complex military operations, why shouldn’t football teams make use of it?

Do you still fly today?
As a matter of fact, I’m scheduled for a couple hours of flight time soon. It will be my first time in a cockpit in 10 years. Flying an F-18 and a private recreational plane are very different experiences, perhaps like going from an F1 race car to a Miata. I’ve been hesitant to get back up in the air, mostly because flying is so unforgiving of mistakes. But the Hornet always felt different – I’ll fly anything with an afterburner and ejection seat in it.

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