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Photos: 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

From NBA champions to new hires in hockey, here’s who made news at the perennially sold-out event

March 3, 2015

Shane Battier

It’s not just baseball stats anymore. This year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference brought together players, coaches, students, professors, and anybody else using data to find an edge on the field and in the front office.

Retired NBA player Shane Battier is considered one of the most numbers-savvy basketball players of the analytics era. Now an analyst at ESPN, Battier made headlines for calling New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony a predictable shooter who “has not been about reinvention.”

Jeff Van Gundy, who coached Battier on the Houston Rockets during the 2006-2007 season, unleashed a short rant, possibly in jest, on the keys to coaching grade school basketball. One important tactic: convincing players to go home sick.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, MBA ’00, co-founded the conference in 2006. Then, the event took place in a few classrooms on campus at MIT. This year, more than 3,100 people attended Feb. 27-28 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

The NFL last season collected real-time data from radio-frequency identification chips in players’ shoulder pads. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, speaking on a panel about the future of NFL statistics, said that data could feed simulators for virtual reality training for quarterbacks.

Similar real-time data will be available from Major League Baseball this year. Fans will have access to some of that data, new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a wide-ranging interview with MLB Network host Brian Kenny.

A panel entitled “Finding the Digital Fan” examined ways social media and big data are changing how organizations market to fans.

“We want to make sure that we use that data in the most appropriate way,” said Amy Brooks, executive vice president for team marketing and business operations at the NBA. “In terms of servicing a season ticket holder at the game, if that person goes and buys a Bud Light in the second quarter of every game … what if your service representative brings you a Bud Light at the end of the first quarter? Does the fan find that creepy? Or does the fan find that nice?"

Kyle Dubas, assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was one of a wave of analytics-minded hires by NHL teams in 2014. As part of the conference’s Competitive Advantage talks, Dubas discussed how analytics can help team management make personnel decisions. He showed a graph detailing the success of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds junior hockey team—his previous employer—before and after a mid-season coaching change.

“I’ve lived with seeing what a change of coaching can do … with absolutely the same group of players,” he said.

Every year, the conference swarms with sports media, who this year filed more than 1,000 reports from the event. DePaul University professor Clayton Graham presented a paper on baseball modeling for gambling [PDF] at the conference and was interviewed by Jody Avirgan for FiveThirtyEight, the statistics-minded ESPN website founded by statistician Nate Silver.