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SFU Burnaby students crowned champs of NFL Big Data Bowl for analytical innovations

The group beat out seven other finalists to earn top spot.
Seattle Kraken quantitative analyst Dani Chu (top left); Elijah Cavan (top centre); Brendan Kumagai (top right); New England Patriots’ Defensive Back Cody Davis (bottom right); Robyn Richie (bottom centre) and Ryker Moreau (bottom right).

Four students from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby have won a major sports analytics contest.

The National Football League's Big Data Bowl invites participants of the analytics community to contribute to the league’s continuing evolution of advanced analytics.

The theme for the fourth-annual event involved creating innovative approaches to analyzing special teams — the 11 players that specialize in field goals, extra-point conversions after touchdowns, punts and kick-offs during a game. 

Those competing were given access to three years of special teams data and students were challenged to identify strategies.

SFU's Robyn Richie, Brendan Kumagai, Ryker Moreau and Elijah Cavan focused on punt returns, breaking the submission titled "Punt Returns: Using the Math to Find the Path" into two parts: Constructing an algorithm to determine the punt returner’s optimal path instantaneously as the play progresses, conditional on the position of all players for that frame, and evaluate their decision-making through traffic plus developing various metrics to evaluate returns and predict expected yards remaining for each punt return at every frame.

The group was told they had won during a video call with New England Patriots’ defensive-back Cody Davis and Seattle Kraken quantitative analyst Dani Chu.

“While there were several top-notch papers and presentations, the judges all felt that your returner path project was a great combination of creative idea and impressive math,” Davis told the group.

“I was really impressed with your project. It was awesome to see all the work that went into your project.”

The eight finalists shared a prize pool of $90,000 and as the winners of the 2022 NFL Big Data Bowl, Ritchie, Kumagai, Moreau and Cavin won an additional $10,000.

“We started this to just do something fun and try our best,” Elijah Cavan said.

“We know that the competition we were going up against was crazy, so we never actually predicted winning. We worked hard and to be here now, it’s amazing.”

The panel of judges chose the presentation as the winner out of eight finalists. In the college division, Ritchie, Kumagai, Moreau and Cavan beat out Jack Lichtenstein from Duke University as well as Jay Li and Rahul Kasar from MIT.

The five other finalists competed in the open category.