Kathy Evans: Leading with Purpose

by Holly MacKenzie

This month we will be highlighting some of the women in the MLSE & Raptors organization who are leading, innovating and leaving their mark on the sports industry in a continued celebration of #IWD2021

This week we are featuring the Director of Strategic Research for the Toronto Raptors, Kathy Evans.

When Kathy Evans first saw the 2016 film Hidden Figures, she was elated. Evans, the Director of Strategic Research for the Toronto Raptors, was overjoyed that the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Black female mathematicians for NASA in the 1960’s, were finally being shown to audiences on the big screen. She was also furious that it took so long for it to happen.

“The first time I saw that movie, I was so mad,” Evans said. “I was furious because it didn't exist when I was a kid. I just was so mad because I just thought to myself, ‘Why didn't I get to watch this when I was in seventh grade? Why am I having to watch this as an adult?’ There were plenty of movies about inspirational science when I was in seventh grade, but they didn't have women in them. I’m so happy that, even just with that one movie now, there’s so much more for people to see.”

Despite a lack of female representation in mathematics and science spaces on the big screen when Evans was growing up in the Bay Area, she had a steady diet of mathematical science in her own home life. Speaking of her role today in a space that has traditionally been dominated by men, Evans acknowledges the privilege that has aided her own career path.

“You know, the biggest reason that I am in the field that I'm in is because I was born into an upper middle class white family that values education and values science education and values math,” Evans said. “And so it never even occurred to me to say I'm not good at math. As a result of coming up in academia and coming up with father and my brother [who] are both very excellent mathematicians.”

A Statistics major at Harvard, Evans went on to grad school for Biostatistics, and then received her Ph.D. in Biostatistics, before going on to work as a quantitative analyst for tech enabled health care. Evans grew up in San Francisco during the Oakland A’s Moneyball years. Though she was enjoying her work in tech enabled health care, she found herself unable to shake her sports data curiosity.

“The sports bug was insatiable,” Evans said. “I was using [my free time] to look at basketball data and football and baseball data. When I sort of felt that it was time to move on and do something else, it just sort of made sense to say, ‘OK, let’s see if I can actually make it in sports analytics properly.’”

Things fell into place quickly after Evans made the decision to explore something new. Her current boss, Keith Boyarsky, Director of Analytics for the Toronto Raptors, was already familiar with Evans from the sports data side projects she’d been working on in her own time.

“It’s sort of serendipitous,” she said. “It sort of worked out really well, that just as I was looking to get into sports analytics professionally, the Raptors were hiring.”

Though the pandemic has switched up the daily routine for Evans and the rest of her colleagues, a typical day in a “normal” season, begins with Evans heading to the Raptors training facility where the analytics group offices are located. After having some breakfast and checking out some of the team’s practice if it is a practice day, Evans will be found in the analytics office, working on whatever project the team has on the go. If it is a game night, there are pregame reports to get ready. In addition to working on her own projects, keeping up with what’s happening in the sports analytics world is also important. Reading new research papers and checking out up-coming conferences is as much a part of the daily routine as is writing code and, of course, watching highlights. 

“Sometimes we have a chat with assistant coaches, or certainly when [Raptors 905 assistant coach] Brittni Donaldson was on the Raptors bench, we would chat with her about things that they were interested in and how we translate the data answers back into something easy to communicate,” Evans said.

On game days, the work day continues well into the night. After heading home to get ready, the analytics team returns to the arena to watch the game together. If there isn’t a game on the schedule, Evans says a fun part of the day is getting to finish her time at the office with a workout at the practice facility. Working out at a gym that is designed to scale for some of the tallest athletes in the world is always a funny reminder for Evans that she isn’t working in the tech enabled health care side of things anymore.

“Getting shots up and the like, I am 5-foot-4 and I weigh 120 pounds,” Evan said with a laugh. ”The gym was not built for somebody my size. There is certain equipment that I just am like, ‘Okay I'm not going to use this and this is fine.’” 

Besides numbers and data, Evans is inspired by those working to broaden and change the landscape of sports analytics. One of the biggest influences in her own journey is Michael Lopez, the Director of Analytics for the NFL.

“[Mike] and I are both in the field of causal inference and he and I both started in academia and then migrated into sports,” Evans said. “Mike is just a really great example of somebody who takes academic rigor and applied it to sports, but also he's really at the forefront of making this field more accessible, both in terms of explaining things to the public, but also in helping underrepresented groups be involved in jobs. I will not be the only person to say that  Mike is a real inspiration in this field.”

Making analytics and sports statistics more accessible is extremely important to Evans.

“I think it's important both from a moral and an ethical standpoint,” Evans said. “People from all walks of life should have access to these opportunities and these experiences. But also it's actually just better, like there have been studies, numerous studies, that just having diversity of experiences and voices leads to better outcomes.”

When Evans speaks about her own experiences growing up around mathematics in her every day, she also realizes that for those who may have had a different experience, getting positive reinforcement or encouragement along the way can be crucial.

“Sometimes it’s just about having permission,” Evans said. “I think just having the permission to say, yes, there are women who do this and it's not perfect, but a lot of organizations are great and are getting better.”

The Raptors have been one of those teams who have championed the work and impact of the women working in their organization. Evans mentions President Masai Ujiri’s vocal support of women in sports, while also saying the best part of working for the organization is that women getting the opportunity to work in the organization isn’t out of the ordinary.

“I think part of what feels so good about it is that there isn't anything to notice,” she said. “The good things are sort of so commonplace. I don't really notice that they stand out and there are no bad things that stand out.”

Since coming on board as the Director of Strategic Research for the Raptors, Evans has gotten to meld her two biggest passions into a singular purpose. “Oh, it's a dream come true,” Evans said. “I mean, basically it's a dream job. The things that I was always really interested in [spending time on] in my free time is now the thing that I do with all of my time.”

Even after a long day at work, Evans will find she sometimes still can’t shut off her curious brain. “Interesting questions come up in the middle of the night and I don't wait until morning to answer them,” she said. 

For young women who are hoping to get involved with data or strategic research, Evans wants women to believe in themselves and their own individual strengths. Rather than trying to conform to whatever they think an “ideal candidate” for their desired role should be, Evans encourages making their own ideal.

“Don't try to fit yourself into somebody else's box,” Evans said. “Think about the thing that you really like and that you're good at and optimize those areas. If you're really good at communication and you can actually break down these complicated mathematical ideas into something that's fairly simple, that's really, really important.”

When it comes to analytics and strategic research, Evans hopes for a future where sports organizations having a diverse staff is the norm and not the exception, across all leagues, levels and sports.

“I want to get to the point where it's no [longer] a story,” she said.

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