Help Needed, Stat!

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has become arguably the biggest off-the-field date on the sports-world calendar, but some wonder whether the gathering has outgrown its original purpose.

How useful was Sloan ever actually in the first place? To answer that question, let’s start from the beginning: Advanced metrics touch all sports these days, but the revolution spread especially rapidly in pro basketball, where a wave of new-money owners from the world of hedge funds and economic data analysis quickly began applying the principles.

Most of that work was done way back at the turn of the century, when a handful of hard-core basketball fans met in one of the darkest corners of the Internet—a Yahoo! message board—to discuss metrics like adjusted plus/minus, pace, and rate statistics, none of which was being served by the box scores in the newspaper.

For years before Sloan came into existence, it was literally the only place where this conversation was happening. Like the handful of people who heard the Velvet Underground and started a band, many of the message-board posters went on to work for NBA teams doing statistical analysis. Sloan may have brought them into the light, but it’s an open question as to how much of an impact the conference has made in the larger world of advanced metrics.

“I think the conference has contributed to that conversation, but actually not that much,” Zarren says. “The big-data revolution was happening whether this conference happened or not. The world was already changing.”

In a way, Sloan’s greatest value has always been its use as a rallying point—a show of strength for the burgeoning analytics community. Just as important as any of the ideas presented at Sloan was the fact that someone like Bill Simmons, with his vast readership and influence, was writing about and legitimizing it. As exposure and acceptance of analytics has grown, it’s become difficult for teams’ executives to not embrace them, lest they look like troglodytes to their fans.

Each year there are new advances, which lead to more questions. A few years ago, the video-scouting service Synergy Sports Technology promised to bring sweeping changes to the industry by breaking down each possession to its core elements. Last year, SportVU was the hot new thing. Using technology designed to track missiles, SportVU cameras mounted in every NBA arena count everything from the number of passes players throw to how far they run during the course of the game.

With breakthroughs coming fast and furious, one of the big questions is how the wonks can best communicate their knowledge so it filters down to the coaches and players on the court. “There’s a lot of smart people, but not all of them can communicate well,” Zarren says. “That’s as much a part of it as learning something, and I don’t think that’s unique to analytical basketball.”

If everyone’s too tight-lipped to actually talk about analytics, then, perhaps a more human focus for Sloan is in order. If there’s a lasting criticism of the conference, it’s the notion that a homogenous collection of overly educated men (it’s mostly all men) are attempting to make every aspect of athletic competition a commodity. Sloan, after all, is a management school, and the conference is geared toward front-office decision-makers.

One group that’s been noticeably absent from the conference over the years is the players. Numbers and statistics may have broadened our understanding of sports, but they still don’t explain human behavior. Over the past several years, as the rest of the country has become fascinated with theories of behavioral economics and the idea that there are small nudges that can cause people—even without them knowing it—to act in a certain way, the sports world has gone in the opposite direction, reducing athletes, as much as possible, to a series of numbers. Sloan might be well served if the next big thing to come out of it is not a new statistic, but rather a deeper plunge into the realm of behavioral psychology.

No matter how big or varied the conference has become, there’s still an element of old friends meeting up to talk shop. Zarren’s unofficial role with Sloan is organizing the annual gathering of the geeks—his words—for pre-conference drinks at a local bar.

“The first year there were probably four or five of us that were working in basketball statistics, and now there’s like a hundred people at that thing,” he says. “We have a whole little community that we didn’t have before. There are people who have gotten hired from that, which is crazy because they wouldn’t have met the people they met otherwise.” For all the new glitz, and even if the panels aren’t so revealing anymore, maybe Sloan isn’t that different after all.