Victory lap: How a student-run sports conference went big and hit mainstream

March 5, 2013

Nate Silver and Daryl Morey, MBA ’00, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Nate Silver and Daryl Morey, MBA ’00, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Consider this: The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has multiplied by a factor of 15 in its seven years.

What started as 175 attendees scattered through classrooms at MIT in 2007 became 2,700 attendees—and a few hundred on the waitlist—convening last weekend at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

It is the “Super Bowl of Sports Analytics,” the lovingly-coined “Dorkapalooza,” and Fast Company’s third most innovative company in sports.

This year there was Nate Silver, the baseball stats icon whose near-perfect forecasting of the last two presidential elections earned him rock star status with the sports analytics crowd, which has long claimed Silver as one of its own.

So it was big. And it was student run. The behemoth of an event was put together by 51 MIT Sloan students in the School’s Entertainment, Media, and Sports Club. For nearly a year, the group worked to craft an event that was attended in earnest by sports executives, students from top business schools, and a throng of media.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, MBA ’00, who co-founded and co-chairs the conference, said the student team worked tirelessly on conference details.

“Honestly, I feel like a tax on the system,” he said. “I do some help bringing in speakers, we put work in, but [the students] do all the heavy lifting. And a lot of them get hired into sports. It's really gratifying.”

Morey attended MIT Sloan looking for a way into the sports management world, and he found one. A few years after graduating, he went to work for the Boston Celtics but stayed connected to the School, eventually teaching a class called Analytical Sports Management with conference co-founder Jessica Gelman, with advisement from MIT Sloan professor Stephen Graves.

So when the Rockets hired Morey away to Houston—a testament to his analytics-driven work in Boston—the class was finished as well. That’s when Morey and Gelman—vice president of Customer Marketing and Strategy at the Kraft Sports Group, which owns the New England Patriots—started the conference.

The seventh annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference opened with a panel discussion entitled Revenge of the Nerds, a nod to the growing, but once mocked, influence and success of analytics and statistics in team management and marketing. An all-star gathering, the panel was moderated by Michael Lewis, whose book Moneyball chronicled Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane’s use of sabermetrics (Lewis’ book was later the basis for the Oscar-nominated film starring Brad Pitt). Morey was there, as always. Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur who bought and turned around the Dallas Mavericks, was back. San Francisco 49ers COO Paraag Marathe, whose team nearly pulled out a Super Bowl win last month, was also on the panel.

And then there was Silver. Probably the world’s most famous statistician—in the sense that if you know only one statistician, it is Nate Silver—he was still riding high from the success of his election predictions.

Yet his heart appeared very much with sports. He shared thoughts on what’s next in sports analytics, but his analysis of contemporaries in political forecasting employed cheerfully dispatched expletives and the phrase “adds no value to society.”

All the Revenge of the Nerds panelists shared not-so-long-ago war stories of being ignored and downplayed, or in Cuban’s case, being yelled at by other NBA team owners.

But the analytics community Morey and Gelman first brought together at MIT Sloan is winning ever-growing acceptance, reflected in the diversification of the event. The conference remains academic, with a business case competition and a slate of research presentations, including new work from MIT students on predicting NFL field goal success and how NBA players could respond in offensive rebounding situations. But it is also a hyper-networking event for the sports business world, with more than 90 professional sports teams represented.

“It has become mainstream because it works,” Morey said in opening comments at the conference. “Using data. Using analysis. A lot of what MIT’s built on.”

And though Moneyball author Lewis pushed his panelists to say if they would take their success into other businesses and industries as Silver has, all of them remain thrilled to be working in sports—and noted that a championship payoff is as sweet as it gets.

“When a company has a great year,” said Cuban, whose Mavericks won its first NBA championship in 2011, “nobody throws a parade.”