Seattle Culture

A Happy Accident

The Seattle Kraken's Namita Nandakumar never envisioned a career as a sports analyst

By Danny O’Neil February 23, 2024

Namita Nandakumar

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Namita Nandakumar grew up in southern New Jersey with a passion for sports. That just comes with the territory when you live in the orbit of Philadelphia.

“Almost by default you end up being a big sports fan,” she says. “It’s just a city that is so passionate about all of its teams.”

She loved the Eagles in part because it (playfully) annoyed her father, who’d begun cheering for Washington after he’d emigrated from Mumbai. She became invested in the Philadelphia Flyers as a teenager when they made a run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010. That was just fun, though. An interest she had. She never imagined she would be going pro.

Even now, as a senior quantitative analyst for Seattle’s NHL franchise, the Kraken, it’s hard for Nandakumar to explain how she went from being an Ivy League business student — someone with very practical, pragmatic career ambitions — to one of the growing number of quantitative analysts whose day job is optimizing the performance of the teams we root for.

“There’s just all of this fortunate, right-place, right-time stuff,” she says.

And that’s true. It was, in many ways, a happy accident. She didn’t start studying the NHL draft because she thought it would lead to a job.

She started studying the NHL draft because as a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, she had the chance to do a yearlong research project and figured that hockey would be less mundane than other case studies.

“If I’m going to be working on something for a year,” she recalls thinking, “it might as well be something that I really love.”

That research resulted in a 25-page paper, “What Does It Mean to Draft Perfectly?” That paper ended up piquing the interest of the organizers of a hockey analytics conference in Vancouver, B.C., and when they invited her to present her research, it turned out that the conference happened to coincide with her spring break.

“It was like, ‘OK, all the stars are aligning for this to happen,” she says. The next year, she was asked to present her work at another conference. This time it was on her own campus, and she wound up speaking with Alec Halaby, who ran the Eagles’ analytics department.

“Even then, I wasn’t really thinking about like a career,” Nandakumar said. “I was thinking, ‘I want to talk to this person and learn more about this stuff.’”

It was only after a couple of phone calls that Nandakumar realized this might be something akin to a job interview. She began an internship with the Eagles the January of her senior year. They won the Super Bowl the following month, and while she didn’t have anything to do with the work that went into that, it was a hell of a lot of fun to be there when it happened. When she graduated that summer, she began a full-time gig with the team she grew up rooting for, and only then did it really start to feel real.

“I was absolutely ecstatic about that,” she says, “and I think that also went a long way in proving that this could be a career.”

There’s another way to look at this, though. One that focuses on the fact that pro sports teams increasingly seek out critically minded people who can bring an understanding of statistics and maybe even computer engineering to the questions of how to build a better sports team. It might have taken a series of fortuitous bounces for Nandakumar to wind up in sports, but it’s not entirely an accident. Teams are looking for people who are capable of doing the kind of analysis most frequently applied to financial markets.

Some people have called it a statistical revolution, but it’s more like a new era: One that has improved the performance of the teams we cheer for, and it hasn’t just created new opportunities for people who didn’t imagine themselves ever working in sports, it has created a demand for people like Nandakumar.

In fact, analytics has been a priority for Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke from the very beginning. Alexandra Mandrycky, who is now the team’s assistant general manager, was one of the franchise’s fi rst hires, arriving before the team had a general manager. She was in charge of the analytics department, and she added Nandakumar to the staff before the franchise had a nickname.

Like the Eagles job, it felt like a dream to Nandakumar. A different type of dream, though. Working for the Eagles was something she never, ever imagined could happen there. Working for the Kraken has been a chance to create a whole new world of possibilities.

“My first job, I was coming into a team that was already very successful, already very smart,” she says. “I do like to think that I helped them improve in certain aspects, but it was also appealing to just kind of say, ‘Let me try to be part of this process of building up a team from the very beginning.’”

Now in their third season, the Kraken are trying to build on the momentum from last season in which they advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

With the help of people like Nandakumar, don’t bet that it won’t happen again.

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