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.

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.”