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.

By | Boston Magazine |

mit sloan sports analytics conference

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The first Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was an appropriately nerdy affair, held on the campus of MIT in 2007. About 175 people came to hear a handful of sports executives talk about everything from cutting-edge statistics to the way franchises run their businesses. The one-day gathering was strictly low-frills, as panelists sat in front of classrooms and attendees wandered MIT’s labyrinthine hallways in search of the next presentation.

“It was go down the Infinite Corridor, take a right, two lefts, and there was the next room,” recalls Celtics assistant general manager and team counsel Mike Zarren. “I don’t know how much time you spend wandering around MIT, but there’s a lot of hallways there.”

A 38-year-old Harvard Law grad from Swampscott with an economics degree from the University of Chicago, Zarren is what many Sloan attendees want to be when they grow up. He left his management consulting job in 2003 for an unpaid internship with his favorite team, the Celtics, and now has an office next to president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.

Zarren, who has been a panelist at every Sloan conference, was one of maybe six people doing statistical analysis in basketball front offices when it began. Now more than two-thirds of the teams in the NBA, by most estimates, employ some kind of numbers wonk.

The rise of the geeks has mirrored the conference’s growth. Two years after its inception, ESPN’s Bill Simmons started writing about the gathering, dubbing it “Dorkapalooza.” ESPN itself signed on as its presenting sponsor in 2010. That year, Sloan was moved off-campus to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center to handle overflow crowds, and has since mushroomed into one of the signature events on the sports calendar. Last year, there were 2,700 attendees, and nearly every major sports franchise in America sent a representative, with many teams sending senior management. On top of ESPN, sponsors include not only companies like Adidas and StubHub, but also firms like McKinsey & Company and Ropes & Gray. If the sports world has an off-field Super Bowl, this is it.

This year’s conference promises to be bigger than ever, as several thousand aspiring hopefuls armed with résumés will swarm Hynes Convention Center to hear a list of speakers that includes new NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, and even The Price Is Right host Drew Carey, who also happens to own a Major League Soccer franchise.

As the conference has gained in star power and cachet, attendees say that the panels have become more entertaining—Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is always a highlight—but less informative. “As it’s gotten more professional, a lot of the panels have had less to say, because there is an interest in keeping professional secrets,” says ESPN analyst and former Indiana Pacers consultant Kevin Pelton.

To find any real insights, you have to sift through the handful of academic papers that are presented each year outside of the main hall—either that, or buttonhole a few stat-heads and try to pry out their secrets over a few drinks. All of which makes you wonder: Has Sloan outlived its usefulness? Has it grown too large to fulfill its initial mission as an academic conference?

“It’s weird to have us all in one place on the one hand,” Zarren admits. But then, he says, with so many smart people around, there’s always the chance of picking something up.

I asked Zarren, who never goes on the record about anything related to his work, if there were papers or panels that caused him to adjust his thinking about certain issues. He paused for a moment and answered, “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it.”


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.

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