WiST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who embody a more diverse and inclusive workforce, setting the benchmark for their peers and future generations.

Predictive Modeling, Where the Past Predicts the Future

Cynthia Frelund knows a thing or two about sports. She also knows a thing or three about data, analytics, predictive modeling and most importantly, how to use that modeling to generate compelling storylines about the future. In her case: the future of an NFL game.

As an NFL Analytics Expert, Cynthia reviews and analyzes every single game, teasing out information that provides clues to future game outcomes. She runs computer vision for every game played and enters it into a database containing ten years’ worth of historical NFL game data. She then watches each game to look for similarities and cues that become data points in a computer model she creates to identify key trends. As Cynthia puts it, “The model identifies developments as granular as a running back trend or as broad as a play calling trend that impacts the entire league.”

These trends become predictive analytics and critical content for her role on NFL broadcasts including NFL GameDay Morning and her podcast, Game Theory and Money.

Lights, Camera, Action!

In season, Cynthia is on-set five days a week at the NFL Studio in Los Angeles. On air, she breaks down the complicated data analytics she modeled into easily digestible trends and stories giving deep insight into the game and players.

The on-air storylines, macro and micro insights, analysis, game-day predictions and player trends are a direct outcome of Cynthia’s predictive analytics model. Cynthia and her co-hosts share and spar, distill and define, as their dialogue brings clarity to a vastly popular, very personal and highly complex game.

Cynthia is extremely aware of the fans’ need for insight. “They don’t have the proprietary information I have access to and I want to lay it out for them.” This, however, is no simple task. Cynthia explains, “Navigating the storylines between next gen stats, traditional stats, and my unique proprietary, predictive model results is where I bring value to the NFL and the fans.”

What she learns, she shares with the world.

A Math Head at Heart

Cynthia has combined her academics, an MBA in Entrepreneurship and Finance, and a Master of Science in Predictive Analytics (both from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management) with another love: sports. “I’m a math head who taught myself how to code. It’s critical to understand what the code can do and why, so you can show anyone in any industry how better insights can drive better outcomes.”

After an early stint as a Finance Analyst, Cynthia learned a critical lesson: predictive models drive investment decisions. When a predictive model based on pattern recognition across the competitive landscape indicates a strong revenue outcome, it can make the difference between an investment or not. Cynthia calls this “pattern recognition in the quant.”

Cynthia applied this strategy to sports. “Think of it this way, if predictive modeling translates into better outcomes on the field, that generates better ratings and drives greater revenues. I add value by presenting a different lens.”

Q and A with Cynthia Frelund

Cynthia has created her own brand. She is a woman in sports who uses her analytic mind, intimate knowledge of the game and broadcast platform to generate and share insights for stakeholders and fans alike.

A Q and A session with Cynthia defines her experience and some valuable lessons she’s learned along the way.

WiST: It seems like you take an academic approach to your career path. Can you share your journey from finance to predictive analytics in sports? It’s an unusual and notable path.

CF:  I got my MBA at Kellogg (Northwestern), which was the basis for my business focus. Later on, I took my masters in Predictive Analytics (also at Kellogg) because it was a key area of interest to me that was not covered by the MBA.

As a Finance Analyst, I generated and presented predictive analytics models to my bosses to drive informed decisions.

In sports, I basically do the same thing, with a few key differences. Academics don’t always get the chance to focus on sports in a team setting, and sports coaches, owners and players don’t often have the time to do extensive predictive modeling. Early on, I figured out the importance of receiving and combining input from experts across academics, sports and finance to ensure my models are statistically valid providing relevant insights that drive optimal, usable outcomes.

What’s most important is that I see immediate results of these models in the outcomes of future NFL games. To me, the most exciting part is taking the model out of the theoretical world and placing it into the real world. Proof.

WiST: You taught yourself how to code, which certainly generated opportunity for you. Would you say this is a skill set every woman needs to be competitive in this space, or any space?

CF: I believe those who understand what coding can do, bring the most value to themselves and their organization. You don’t need to be an expert, but you really need to appreciate what tools (input) a great coder requires to deliver a solid model (output).

I don’t regard myself as an expert coder, but I know enough to put together the right parameters and seek expertise from others to ensure that the proper input yields the best output.

I also think that to be an effective boss in today’s environment, knowing how to frame the parameters of what you are seeking from a coder – the questions to ask, the outcomes you seek, the time it takes to generate a statistically sound model, what is relevant and irrelevant – is critical to your success.

WiST: You bring a level of kaizen, the notion of constant improvement to your professional life. Is this a philosophy that has always been a part of your DNA?

CF: I am very self-aware. I always want to make my work time valuable. Starting out of college, I wanted to spend my working hours doing something that would make me better, special, more.

Why would I spend my time doing something if I wasn’t improving? If I didn’t feel I was doing something I could be great at, maybe there was something else I should be doing.

It takes time to fall in love with the process of becoming invested in your work and getting to a ‘good space,’ the place where you feel valuable to yourself and others. This is where you connect with your work and your colleagues and truly feel you are making a difference. The ‘good space’ is where I strive to be.

WiST: Professional sports at the senior levels remain male-dominated. The smartest colleagues ask for guidance and offer value in return, generating a virtuous cycle of trust. In this environment, how do you ask for help?

CF: While the NFL is male dominated, there are amazingly awesome women who have paved the way in this sport! If you offer something of true value, no BS, and deliver on what you say you will, people notice.

I am lucky enough to have access to decision makers, thought leaders and influencers with a voice that matter in my space. I can’t overstate the importance of being respectful of one’s time, and thoughtful in your communication. The combination of these two go a long way in building solid relationships.  

Time is of great value, and I don’t waste it. I do my homework and make sure that I ask pointed, meaningful questions, which are positioned to help me build a better model, and, ultimately a better deliverable. If I’m stuck on something that matters to a coach, I’ll ask, “Where is the safety supposed to be in here? I watched seven games and didn’t see him in the lineup.” The coach knows I’m asking a very informed question and his answer will help me deliver a key insight.

How I communicate information to others is key. The chasm between people who understand tech and those who don’t is gigantic. Most people I deal with in the NFL are not analytics specialists. Still, it is incumbent upon me to deliver tech derived insights with a clear storyline that is easy to digest, and deliver it with patience, respect and confidence. My job is always to add value. The more value I add, the more valuable I become.

WiST: What is your FAVORITE thing about your work?

CF: One of the things I really cherish about this job is being part of someone’s special moments. I know how special it is to be on our pre-game shows before the Super Bowl, the Draft, or a Wild Card game, and I get to bring a story into someone’s home during very special moments that become great memories. This opportunity is not lost on me. It’s really quite moving.

Another important aspect is how we are bringing innovation to the public. The NFL is 100 this year and we are asking the football public to look at things just a little bit differently. To look at predictive analytics in the same light as they look at post game highlights. Asking our stakeholders as well as our fans to embrace this innovation is a challenge, but I love a challenge! A special thanks to Cynthia for sharing her story with the WiST community. Cynthia’s efforts to bring innovation to the sport of football is paving the way for the next generation of women. Inspiration comes in all forms.