Kelsey McDonald ’15 doesn’t settle.
She didn’t settle for being an average athlete—she was a star player on Longwood’s soccer team. She didn’t settle for being second in her graduating class—she was valedictorian.
And she didn’t settle for the good—but uninspiring—job she landed right out of college as a data analyst for an oil and gas company in her hometown of Philadelphia.
“It wasn’t a good fit,” McDonald said of that first job. “If I’m looking at data, I want it to be interesting data. Oil and gas prices didn’t do it for me. I started thinking and asking myself what I liked doing. I’ve loved sports my entire life, so I said, OK, how do I get a career in that?”
Like any good story, McDonald’s has twists and turns, a little angst and a happy ending that, for her, includes a job that tapped into her passion—conducting sophisticated data analysis for several high-level sports franchises, leagues and sports industry leaders, including the Philadelphia 76ers.
She works for Kraft Analytics Group (KAGR), a company that provides advanced analytics and strategic consulting in the sports and entertainment industry. As a member of KAGR’s analytics team, McDonald works closely with clients to help them make more informed business decisions. For example, KAGR can help teams predict which season ticket holders will renew their memberships from one year to the next, resulting in thousands of dollars of retained revenue.
McDonald says the work is fascinating, and, though she didn’t realize it at the time, she was set on the path to KAGR during her senior year at Longwood when she attended a campus presentation by Bill James. James is known in sports circles as the father of “sabermetrics,” a unique approach to analyzing sports-centric statistics and data that has been adopted in some capacity by nearly every sports franchise in the country.
“I wrote about that in all my essays about why I wanted to go back to school for my master’s—that meeting him at Longwood that day was the beginning of this entire passion,” said McDonald, who completed her master’s degree in business analytics from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in 2017.
She knew for sure she had chosen the right field during what she called an “NBA hack-a thon” with her classmates at Duke. “It sounds like the nerdiest thing in the world,” she said.
“We stayed up all night and coded, but it was the most fun 24 hours ever. Yes, I was doing the same thing as my old job, digging through numbers and data, but time was flying because the things I was finding were so interesting.”
She then met KAGR CEO Jessica Gelman at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an annual gathering of industry professionals to discuss the role of analytics in the global sports industry.
“I was blown away by Jess, her insight into where the industry of sports-data analysis is headed and what she shared about KAGR,” McDonald said. “I knew that was a place I wanted to work.”
McDonald latched on with KAGR shortly after graduation from Duke. She views Gelman as a role model and hopes to one day rise to a similar position.
“I would be thrilled to one day end up in a position like Jess’s where I’m managing data for an entire franchise or league,” McDonald said. “There are a lot of women who have climbed the ladder in this field.”
It’s unlikely she’ll settle for anything less.