by Len Lear
The word “fan” (as in “sports fan”) is short for the word “fanatic,” and if you listen to any of the local sports talk radio stations or hang around certain neighborhood bars, you will understand why. You are likely to hear the quintessential Philly sports fans arguing passionately about why one defensive lineman is better than another, why one coach should be fired, why one outfielder should be traded, etc. And you will hear so many facts, figures and statistics fired like bullets, you will wonder where this endless river of numbers comes from.
They just may come from Sean Forman, 44, who has lived in Mt. Airy for the last 16 years. Forman, who grew up in Manning, a miniscule dot on the map of western Iowa, is the king of sports statistics. A former professor at St. Joseph’s University, Forman started the website baseball-reference.com in April, 2000,which soon became one of the most popular statistical sites on the internet thanks to its simplified format in an age of dial-up connections when older sites took forever to load.
The site has greatly expanded since then, and in 2005 the “BR Bullpen” was created to add biographical and historical information to the numbers. Everything you need to know bout baseball to win a bar bet is on this site. In 2006 Forman won the award for best oral research presentation at the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research. (Yes; there is such a thing.)
How is it possible to provide so many zillions of pieces of information and keep it all updated? “Sometimes it feels like it’s held together with duct tape,” Forman told us last week, “but we have written a lot of programs to update it automatically, and we have processes in place to test the data and to back it up and store it as needed. Mistakes happen, but we are very responsive to our users, so things are fixed quickly.”
Growing up, Forman played football, basketball, baseball and golf. He graduated from Grinnell College in 1994 with a BA in math and earned a PhD from the University of Iowa in applied mathematical and computational sciences in 2001. He became a tenured professor of mathematics and computer science at St. Joseph’s University but took a leave of absence in 2006 and then resigned in order to devote his full attention to the website.
Obviously there are lots of statistics-hungry sharks out there because Forman’s website averages around 500,000 users and two million page views on any given day.
Since Forman gave up his academic day job, how is it possible to make a living from the sports website? “We have a lot of traffic, so pennies per page add up over time,” replied Forman, who has seven full-time employees.
What kind of information are most users interested in? “It’s a wide variety. Mostly they come to us because we have as much or more (information) than any one person can ask for.”
Forman, whose company is called Sports Reference, has branched out way beyond baseball with a “pro football” reference website and a “basketball reference” website and other websites for college football, hockey, college basketball and the Olympics. (Maybe eventually Little League Baseball or Water Tower Leagues?)
Want to know the batting averages of your favorite player every year of his career? Or which NFL player had the most sacks in 2005? Or who was the most accurate field goal kicker ever? What about the names of every player who ever died on July 4? Or every pro basketball player named Julius? Or every linebacker who shares your birthday? The possibilities are obviously endless, and the answer to every question can be found in about 30 to 45 seconds.
“We have an extremely diverse group of people who are using the sites,” Forman said recently. “It’s not just media people who are on there because we would be broke if that were the case.”
What is the best advice that Forman ever received? “A speaker at my college graduation told the story that someone once asked a race car driver how he kept the car under control while driving so fast. The driver replied, ‘If everything’s under control, you are going too slow.’ I take that to mean that you can’t wait for everything to be lined up and perfect. You’ve got to do things now because there never will be a perfect time to try new things or try a new product.”
Who are Forman’s favorite athletes of all time? “I really like Rickey Henderson, Pedro Martinez and Wade Boggs. Not sure why; I just always gravitated to them.”
Interestingly, if Forman could spend time with anyone in history, it would not be an athlete. “I wish I could have met Mr. Rogers,” he said. “I find his grace and compassion breathtaking.”
You can reach Forman on Twitter at @sean_forman.