After the revolution: what the sports world looks like when analytics go mainstream

At MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, player and performance analytics offer new ways to compete on the field and in the front office

March 3, 2014

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, left, sat for a wide-ranging interview with The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, left, sat for a wide-ranging interview with The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell.

The sports analytics revolution has happened. The question is no longer whether to use analytics to measure and monitor team performance and value. The competition from here on out—on the court, on the field, or in the front office—is a matter of how those analytics are used.

“Right now the competition is ‘I use data and I use more data than you. And that moves my business faster,’” said Chris Granger, president of the Sacramento Kings, at the eighth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “Ultimately, though, everyone’s going to catch up, and everyone’s going to use data. And then it’s a question of: ‘Well, how do you use it?’”

“The competition is ‘I have six analysts and I can do stuff,’” he said. “But ultimately, we’re all going to have six analysts, or sixteen analysts, or sixty analysts, and then the chess game begins about who’s using the data in the most insightful way. Who’s the smartest user of data? And I think that’s the next competition on the business side.”

Granger was speaking on a panel titled “Analytics in Sports Business: Putting the Money in Moneyball.” Also on the panel: executives at NASCAR, StubHub, and PepsiCo, and Jared Smith, the president of Ticketmaster.

   Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson joined the “Building A Dynasty” panel.Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson joined the “Building A Dynasty” panel.

Smith said the ticketing industry is a long way from perfect pricing (though “It will be higher on average than it is today,” he said.) But as StubHub’s decade of ascendance in the secondary ticket market and Ticketmaster’s implementation of dynamic pricing tools and its own secondary ticketing developments have shown, analytics in sports are no longer restricted to measuring player performance, in-game strategy, and player development and acquisition decisions.

Managed by students in the MIT Sloan Entertainment, Media, and Sports Club, the conference was held Feb. 28 and March 1 at Hynes Convention Center in Boston. More than ever, the event—which drew 2,000 attendees and boasted a waitlist of nearly 1,000 before the waitlist itself was capped—is also about networking, job searches, and acquiring talent and technology.

Founded in 2007 by MIT Sloan alumnus Daryl Morey and Jessica Gelman, today a vice president at the Kraft Sports Group, owners of the New England Patriots, New England Revolution, and Gillette Stadium, the conference grew out of the Analytical Sports Management course the pair taught at MIT Sloan. It began with 175 attendees meeting in classrooms on the MIT campus.

For the 800 students attending from 180 institutions this year, the conference offered drop-in resume reviews and a sort of interview speed dating, in which 200 students sat for a series of five-minute interviews with representatives from 30 organizations. A “Trade Show Blitz” pitch competition pitted nine startups, many touting variations on all-in-one coaching and training analytics apps, against each other in four-minute pitches to a panel of investors.

   Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, center, won the award for best trade. Pictured are conference co-founders Daryl Morey, MBA ’00, and Jessica Gelman.Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, center, won the award for best trade. Pictured are conference co-founders Daryl Morey, MBA ’00, and Jessica Gelman.

Still, the conference’s heart remained panels of coaches, players, analysts, owners, and journalists that earned the event its “Dorkapalooza” nickname. For any major sport, attendees could get an hour-long fix of data, theories, analysis, and anecdotes. One session this year, for example, asked the audience to vote between two college football blank resumes (record, record against top 25, point differential, big wins, big losses, etc.) to determine which team would hypothetically compete in the college football playoff that will be implemented beginning this year.

The event also attracted big name speakers. This year, legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson spoke on a panel called “Building a Dynasty,” where he entertained the crowd with a mix of anecdotes and leadership maxims. Statisticians Bill James and Nate Silver, both celebrities in the sports analytics realm, joined the conference’s opening panel.

And new NBA commissioner Adam Silver sat for a wide-ranging and sometimes contentious interview with The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. Only one month into his tenure, Silver defended public assistance and property tax breaks for arenas, said he would like to see a team in Seattle again, and gave credence to the idea of the league expanding into Europe.

   Statistician Nate Silver joined a panel on baseball analytics.Statistician Nate Silver joined a panel on baseball analytics.

Silver also said he was open to changes to the NBA draft rules, but challenged the idea that teams “tank” at the end of the season in order to ensure a higher draft pick. (Meanwhile, Morey, now the Houston Rockets general manager, had said the day before that “at least two-thirds of the teams weren’t trying to win their games” at the end of the last NBA season. And former Toronto Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo admitted at the conference to attempting to tank the 2011-2012 season.)

“I’m not sure if the analytics bear out that being the optimal way to operate in those sort of situations,” Silver said.

Conference presentations also included a case competition, won by a team from the University of Wisconsin and a research paper competition, won for “The Three Dimensions of Rebounding” by a team at Second Spectrum, Inc. in Los Angeles. Swingbyte, a golf swing analysis tool and app, won the trade show pitch competition.

And a lifetime achievement award was given to New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, an early proponent of sabermetrics.