When a hockey player handles a puck, most take it at face value.
Players and fans, friends and family may see an opportunity to score or to steal or to pass, a net to shoot at or to defend.
When Meghan Chayka—CEO and co-founder of sports data company Stathletes—watches a hockey player handling a puck, she sees a multitude of calculations and statistical possibilities: the path to an attempted shot, the time the player enters the offensive zone, the sizable distance between them and every teammate or opponent in vision.
If the player passes to a teammate who then goes on to score, she sees the shot assist. If the player takes a stab at the net themself, she knows to add it into their goals to shots attempted ratio. Chayka sees the numbers that compartmentalize the game, an area of expertise that acts as a crossroad between sports and business. The data scientist’s ability to reshape the game and improve it using performance analytics is the foundation of Stathletes’ success, but she didn’t always make the connection between her love for sports and knack for business.
Throughout Chayka’s childhood and early adult life, the two industries existed as separate entities in her mind. Chayka had always been a natural athlete. At 6’0″ tall and born into a sports-loving family, she grew up playing basketball and baseball, and supporting her brother, John Chayka (former GM of the Arizona Coyotes), throughout his earlier hockey years. She loved sports but didn’t see her passion as anything more than a hobby.
She studied finance and economics at Brock, McMaster, and the University of New Brunswick while in school, and worked in public policy for a few years. Gradually, though, Chayka’s internal insight on public and private corporations and their use of data to make informed decisions inspired her to apply the utility of numbers into other industries, such as sports.
“Throughout my academic career, I always had some touchpoints with sports,” says Chayka, “And then with the technical nature of some of my degrees, the two ended up overlapping very well with the boom of data and analytics.”
RELATED: Elladj Baldé is Carving a New Path Forward for the World of Figure Skating
So she took the best of the knowledge she’d gained of both industries and melded them together to form a startup. And Stathletes—Chayka’s hockey analytics company that provides in-depth data, insights, and visualizations—was born.
“You learn a lot when you’re starting a company, and you make mistakes too, but it’s your ability to improve and adapt quickly that makes entrepreneurs successful,” says Chayka.
But, of course, building a startup also means accepting definitive risk.
“These industries move in different directions or become more interested in certain spaces,” she says. “There was an element of luck and timing, as there is with every story. I feel like we would’ve pivoted a bit differently, had the market moved on us.”
But there was no pivot necessary. Before long, the potential of Chayka’s company was recognized throughout NHL front offices, with executives approaching Stathletes for insights their own scouts had neither the technology nor insights to gather. Years later, Chayka and the company have played a pivotal role in the mainstream development of data analytics in sports.
“[Data in sports] has definitely grown and evolved in the last 10 to 20 years. We started unofficially about 14 years ago, and we’ll be incorporated for 12 years as of December,” says Chayka.
She explains that the industry demand has grown for digital media groups who could “absorb, understand, and leverage data”, whether it be on a decision-making side or front-facing to fans. The variety of different usage and incorporation of the data that Stathletes produces has grown as well, and so has its base of clients. Today, the Canadian company provides services to over 22 leagues worldwide, at the highest levels of professional hockey in North America and Europe. And most recently, with the surge of sports betting making waves across North America, companies are reaching out to Stathletes, desperate to gain an analytical edge against the odds.
Chayka, in addition to running Stathletes, is also a data scientist of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, where she continues to influence the evolution of analytics at an academic level. Suffice it to say, the analyst is a leading figure for women in both sports and business, as diversity increases across the board in underrepresented industries.
“It’s nice to see that women being hired doesn’t even have to be as reported now; it’s just becoming more of a norm,” she says, adding that she would encourage any organization to focus on diversity as their next step, including not only women but also racialized individuals. “It’s such a competitive advantage to find people from different backgrounds who understand the game in different ways and can bring different things to every organization.”
Although she’s happy about the normalization of women in higher-level positions in sports, she reminisces that when she was first rising in her career, there was no clear benchmark level for her to measure her success.
“To be a woman in a really underrepresented space, you just have to focus on your goals and not look outwards,” she explains. “If I looked outwards 10 years ago, I would’ve just said, ‘Okay, this space isn’t for me.’”
Chayka says that setting your own goals and knowing what you want to accomplish is what really breaks down barriers, and if you feel there isn’t space for you then to, “create the space.” Over the years, she’s become an expert at creating her own space. In 2019, she stated in an interview, “I don’t want to be the GM. I want to own the team. I want to be my boss. I want to build a billion-dollar company and own the team.” At the time, the quote was said partially in jest, but the overarching principle still remains today.
“Why aim small?” she asks. “The bigger you can aim, the bigger you can think. […] Having lofty goals and being able to control the culture you work in is the ultimate dream. It’s the same idea with owning a team; you can think differently and change who gets invited into the decision-making rooms.”
In sports, we’re often treated to headlines advertising women being reviewed for front office and executive positions. But rarely does this progress go much farther than a celebratory press release before yet another male counterpart is awarded the position. A 2021 report from Women in Sport Leadership shows that at the current pace, the national level of sports would not reach gender parity on boards until 2037, 12 years past the Government of Canada’s target date of 2024 for achieving gender-balanced boards. While some metrics show marginal growth in women’s representation, others reveal just how far we have left to go before we reach equity in sports leadership. According to the report, there are still nine major Canadian sports organizations that either have no women or only one woman at the board room table.
Part of that is a lack of representation. Chayka said herself that, had she not focused on her internal goals, the lack of female representation may have deterred her from the field altogether. Fortunately, there are those, like her, who refuse to wait politely for an interview. Instead, she built her own boardroom from the ground up. But this exceptional status is one that she hopes to shed in the coming years.
According to a 2021 international barometer on women’s entrepreneurship conducted by Veuve Clicquot, research found that aspiring entrepreneurs are less likely to know the name of a successful female entrepreneur than a male counterpart (38 percent compared to 44 percent), with Canadian women ranking nine percent lower than the global average in that awareness. But with seemingly every NHL franchise clamouring for her insights, Chayka is well on her way to being at the front of people’s minds when they think of successful Canadian entrepreneurship.
As for fellow women entrepreneurs still navigating an underrepresented space, Chayka’s reassurance is simple.
“You might be the first, but you won’t be the last.”