5 Questions With Vince Gennaro, New Director of Columbia’s Sports Management Program

Columbia University has appointed Vince Gennaro as director of its Master of Science in Sports Management. Vince Gennaro is a consultant to Major League Baseball teams, President of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and the author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball. Early in his career, Gennaro was a pioneering sports entrepreneur, raising capital to purchase and operate a franchise in the upstart Women’s Professional Basketball League, a forerunner to today’s WNBA. We spoke with Prof. Gennaro about his business experience, his passion for sports, and how mastering sabermetrics can help new Sports Management grads compete in the job marketplace.

What got you interested in sports management?

I’ve always been interested in sports. Sports has always been a passion of mine, so much so that when I was in my late twenties and a couple of years out of graduate business school, I raised some capital and bought a franchise in the Women’s Professional Basketball League in 1979.

After the league failed in 1981, I went on to have a business career, mostly at PepsiCo, where I spent 20 years. When I left PepsiCo in 2001, I wanted to convert my business experience to impact the sports world. I started doing research on baseball and looking at the economics of the sport. I ended up writing Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball.

The sports world was changing pretty dramatically to become more professionally run: As the dollar stakes rise, then you’re going to run it like a million-dollar business and not like a mom and pop operation.

Can you talk about analytics in baseball? I know that that’s your area of your expertise – plus, many of us have heard of these concepts from Moneyball.

Well, there are a couple of things. Back in the late ’70s, right when I was contemplating getting in the basketball business, I was also dabbling in baseball analytics. Back then, analytics were pretty primitive.

So I was creating models and doing some statistical analysis to see how much players were worth to the teams from an economic standpoint. How much incremental revenue would player A create for team B if he were on the team? I published a few articles, and one was picked up by Sporting News, a baseball publication that was read by everyone in the industry.

I then had conversations with Bill James, the father of baseball statistical analysis. Bill James is synonymous with sabermetrics and baseball analytics. We had a couple of conversations back then, and that’s when I actually did the initial work I ultimately covered in Diamond Dollars.

Can you tell me about your book Diamond Dollars?

My book came out four years after Moneyball, and some people in the media called it a sequel to Moneyball. Moneyball was a wonderfully written story, but mine applies the principles of Moneyball – the concepts of objective analysis and data-driven decision making.

I created a framework in Diamond Dollars that looks at the responsiveness to winning for fans in a given market; it’s very different for a Yankee fan than it is for a Kansas City Royals fan. Over history, how do we see changes in revenue, changes in attendance, changes in the TV contract based on the performance of the team? Then, taking a step back, how much of a performance impact will Alex Rodriguez have on the Texas Rangers? What are the risk factors and the variability around his projected performance? You can create a model – without certainty, of course – but with some predictive power. It’s those kinds of metrics and analysis that I brought to the game.

What’s next for data-driven analysis in sports?

One of the things we’re seeing is a dramatic explosion of data. Everything from analyzing Twitter feeds of players to measuring many more points of data not just for each game but each pitch – each angle, each spin. Basically, when the book Moneyball came out, we had two percent of the data we have now.

What’s one of your goals as program director of Sports Management?

We definitely want our students to become better capable of competing in the marketplace for jobs. I know I’m on the right track when sports teams and sports leagues are calling me to ask me for recommendations for young job candidates. I was able to help place three or four folks last year in professional sports teams based on my recommendations.

I come from a consumer marketing background. I was trained to always have my finger on the pulse of the customer and the consumer. I’ve taken that approach to my own career and want to bring it to this program.

The great Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky had a phrase, “Skate to where the puck is going.” That’s what I always try to do.