Monday, February 13, 2017

Interview with Luke Ryan ex-MLU Stats Guru

Luke Ryan worked for Major League Ultimate as their Statistical Research and Analysis Coordinator before MLU abruptly shutdown its operations in late December 2016.  Luke talks about successes at the startup semi-professional sports league and claims to have watched more ultimate games than anyone in the world. Luke has a background in statistical analytics and database management. His first project at MLU was to build a t-shirt cannon; he would go on to successfully develop a statistical database for the league.

SLUDGE: How did you first hear about the news regarding MLU operations?
Luke Ryan: I first heard the news a day after it had been broken to [Executive VP and Founder] Nic [Darling]. He sent an office wide meeting invite for Wednesday, which was strange since we normally held those types of meetings on Mondays.

SLUDGE: What was your first reaction about the MLU news?
Luke: Fuck, I shouldn't have bought that new pair of cleats.

SLUDGE: Speak to the timing of the investors decision to shutdown the MLU. Were there any signs regarding the decision to shutdown?
Luke: Of course there were signs at the end of the 2016 season that a shut down was a possibility. Just like years past we didn't hit 100% of our numbers but felt we had done enough in some areas that we would be able to make a case for another year. The shutdown came as a slap in the face for number of reasons. The most glaring one was that about a month prior we had been sat down and given a green light for 2017, with the backing and new budget set for the new year we moved into a new office, hired a handful of new full time employees and started an overhaul of our ticketing system.  If the plan all along was to pull the plug on us I don't really see the reasoning in telling us that we're funded and allowing us to move into a new office space.

SLUDGE: After the 4th (2016) season of the MLU, did the office still feel like a startup?
Luke: We were still VERY much so a start up. The leagues presentation and public image did wonders in terms of people thinking we had massive amounts of money at our disposal. Behind the scenes, everyone was doing the work of around 5-10 people to make this thing happen.

SLUDGE: In terms of preparing for the 2017 season, how far along were you as of December 2016?
Luke: Personally, I was around 2 weeks away from reaching out to previous years stat keepers and seeing if they were going to be on board again. Small updates and changes to the website were an ongoing project that we were implementing every few weeks. Outside of waiting on a few operational things I was ready for the new season.

SLUDGE: You presided over the MLU stats behemoth. What made the MLU stats system so good?
Luke: I think what made the system so successful was the fact that we built it from the ground up. My pitch when I first walked through the doors at MLU was that we could build something, in house, that was better than any stat tracking app on the market at the time. If only because all of those apps were built to accommodate single teams on the club level, not advanced tracking of an entire league. With the basic capture and storage down the possibilities of what we were able to do were almost limitless, the fantasy leagues, the live boxscores, the records pages, the score ticker.

"[Major League Ultimate was] able to be the first ones to give our fans the type of statistical coverage that normal sports fans have taken for granted from football, baseball, and basketball from sites like ESPN."

We were able to be the first ones to give our fans the type of statistical coverage that normal sports fans have taken for granted from football, baseball, and basketball from sites like ESPN. In the end that was the most rewarding part of being apart of this project. The way I saw it, if ultimate wanted to be taken seriously as a sport, there needed to be the type of statistical coverage that every other major sport in the world had. The goal was always to have people going on our website and saying "Oh, there's the link to the live boxscore.", instead of "Oh man, I can't believe they have a live boxscore!." People shouldn't be surprised when a professional sports league provides the bare minimum, they should be asking for more.

"...if ultimate wanted to be taken seriously as a sport, there needed to be the type of statistical coverage that every other major sport in the world had."

We just wanted to set a standard and I think we accomplished that.

SLUDGE: What do you hope will be seen as your legacy with the MLU?
Luke: Just as someone who helped make ultimate stats something consumable. Having numbers and figures to point to when comparing teams and players. A uniform language that every ultimate player and fan could understand and speak with.

SLUDGE: How do you think the MLU will be remembered in 10 years?
Luke: I hope once the dust settles and people see past their biases (MLU vs AUDL, Pro vs Club) they can appreciate what we did for ultimate. The exposure we were able to generate. Our branding and web presence. Actually being able to sell our sport to the general public. Building a foundation for actual statistics. There are too many things to list.

SLUDGE: I know there were specific paid stats keepers at each MLU game. What system did they use to collect and input game stats? 
Luke: A handful of the teams used the interface that we used ourselves to transcribe game flow. The input application was still very much a working beta that people who were comfortable enough to use, used, since they knew the little bugs and how to avoid them. If the stat keepers didn't feel comfortable they used a Google spreadsheet to easily follow the action in key strokes which was easily transcribed in real time by us in Philly.

SLUDGE: Is it true your re-watched every single game to confirm collected stats?
Luke: Every. Single. Game.

I honestly don't know if there is anyone else in the world who has seen more ultimate than Tim [Brubaker] and I have over the last 3 year. Some times games were perfect, others there might have been a throw or two missing. Then the basic corrections of blocks that were first recorded as throw aways and so on.

SLUDGE: What's the best application by an MLU team of collected stats? Any examples you can give where MLU teams used stats for game strategy?
Luke: I left the door open to all coaches and league staff to reach out to me if they wanted specific stats. The only league employee who regularly used me as a resource was Dusty [Rhodes], for his weekly pieces.

SLUDGE: So, who owns the ultimate stats program now?
Luke: I honestly don't know who the IP belongs to now. I have all of the source code on my personal computer and cloud accounts though.

SLUDGE: Is there any unfinished business that you hope some other entity else will pick up post-MLU?
Luke: We were in the middle of a major overhaul of our fantasy platform for the new year. It was only about 30% complete when we shut down. Really thought people would've enjoyed it. Other than that I just hope the AUDL or USAU make some sort of effort to pick up what we've started here with regards to statistics.

SLUDGE: What would it take for another league to implement your stats system?
Luke: If another league would want to implement this sort of system they would need a dedicated and centrally run department. There are too many moving parts for it to be a team by team free for all. The hosting fees would also need to be taken care of on top of however long the backend development process would take.


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