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Who promotes sports analytics? Musings from Day 2 at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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“So why are you here?”

“I’m here for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s this annual sports analytics conference. It’s been happening for eight years. It was at Hynes this year; there were 2,000 attendees. It’s kind of a big deal. It had 2,700 attendees last year.”

“So it dropped?”

“Well, yeah. It was at Seaport last year. They moved it to Hynes this year and knew there would be smaller space.”

“So what sport did it focus on?”

“Well, mostly basketball. Because one of the co-founders is the GM of the Houston Rockets. But it kinda dabbled in other sports. And mostly, teams just supplied talking points and the value was in the hallway conversations. But please, keep asking questions. You’re amazing.”

*****

This was my actual late-night Saturday elevator conversation as I returned to my hotel room after two exhausting days at the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. This exchange wasn’t a job pitch. It wasn’t a presentation of my personal competitive advantage. It was simply my quick description of what occurred around me this weekend in Boston.

My favorite description of SSAC thus far was from Hickory-High’s Ian Levy over at Hardwood Paroxysm. Levy is a teacher himself and provided great insight on SSAC’s impact. This was his money line: “I love attending this conference, but there is always a part of me that leaves feeling dirty and used.”

As I shared in my Day 1 recap, I’m sensationally fascinated by the demographics, economics and analytics of this event, the world’s preeminent sports analytics conference. Today, I’m able to add a bit more context to my introduction through conversations with conference veterans and native Bostonians. I’m left wondering what might be next.

For 2014, the conference was moved from the massively new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to the Hynes Convention Center. There is far less available space at Hynes, but the move was likely strategic and profitable. Hynes is centrally located downtown right next to Boston’s best lodging and entertainment. The 2013 location was in the Seaport District, a redeveloping area far out of the way for higher-end visitors.

The conference, which is in its eighth year, was co-founded by Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM, and Jessica Gelman of The Kraft Sports Group. Gelman told me on Twitter that the SSAC leaders knew the move to Hynes would limit maximum attendance lower than last year’s 2,700 total. This year’s total was 2,000. Independent of the ramifications of this year’s move and the economic effects of the conference’s also-increasing price range, I departed Boston seeking some type of concluding comfort.

*****

Let’s start with this: The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is not an academic conference. I reject that idealist consideration. It’s simply not. That can’t be the case when there are so many legitimate issues with the actual research occurring and being presented. Mostly, the event is a popular gathering place for really smart people who don’t have an incentive to share their intelligence.

One of the common themes throughout the conference – from the purposefully coy panelists – was about how much we still don’t know about analytics. Some NBA coaches shared their persistent apprehension with limited advancements. It is possible teams could abandon analytic investments if they aren’t leading to instant advantages and profits. Thus, my second-day frustration and curiosity focused on whom or what is promoting the development of better sports analysts.

During a panel on the education of the next generation of sports analysts, several professors shared their infantile class development structures. Sports analytics is struggling to gain the support of university administrators as a legitimate industry. No overarching society has prescribed a list of guidelines. A promising Journal of Sports Analytics appears to be in the early stages of development just now.

“Teams and media companies hire people who really know statistics and just enough sports to be dangerous, or people who really know sports and just enough statistics to be dangerous,” said USC’s Jeremy Abramson during that panel, as transcribed in a follow-up post on education from Ian Levy.

Daniel Nowell at TrueHoop called SSAC a “hybrid trade-show conference” and questioned whether leagues should step in to even the playing field in the analytics revolution. That’s a possible advantage to the simultaneous private-public release of new advanced statistical information, similar to SportsVU on NBA.com/stats and MLB’s now-released massive Big Data plan.

Timothy Varner at TrueHoop also supplied a brief list of example areas in which the public might be misled in their current understanding of analytics. These weren’t archaic topics like “RBIs aren’t actually that useful” and “points-per-game are overrated.” Instead, these were a variety of claims from SSAC this year alone that questioned established sports analytics heuristics that we’re perhaps already taking for granted with a lack of thorough innovation.

QUOTEAnother incomplete field of study that remains out for the taking: Panelists all over seemed to emphasize less controlling coaches in sports. For many, there is a yet-unidentified advantage to “reaction times” of NFL running backs or “chaos-creating” NBA playmakers. Coaches and executives are preaching that athletes should become less robotic, more reactionary. How can this co-exist with analytical development?

These connected themes led me to ask this question to many panelists and fellow attendees on Saturday night and Sunday: Who is championing the public and purely academic innovation of sports analytics?

Let’s estimate that the entire sports industry is worth somewhere around $100 billion. That might be an understatement. Truthfully, “sports analytics” is a popular code word with purposefully ambiguous and negative connotations. The term simply is about merging the Scientific Method, best practices of finance, statistical know-how, computer programming and more to make the sports industry even more efficient.

Is it possible then that the sports analytics subset of the sports industry might be worth $20-25 billion itself? Isn’t every segment of this massive industry looking for any type of competitive advantage? What would teams pay for an extra edge on the field? Why aren’t they doing so yet? Who else should be doing so?

Analytics could and should affect everything in sports. Of course, we’re talking about a private profit-seeking industry. Long-term investment on analytics innovations currently appears to be solely dictated by the teams, leagues, consulting groups and somewhat media companies that seek advantages and eventually profits on the margins. SSAC’s popularization alone is sufficient evidence of this incredibly profitable analytics segment of the gigantically valuable sports industry. As a first-time SSAC attendee, however, the event actually provoked endless questioning rather than possible solutions on the long-term evolution of public sports analytics innovation.

On the higher level, who is satisfying the insatiable thirst for a purely academic look into sports analytics? Who is lobbying on behalf of fan and consumer analytic desires? Who is directly curating the vast array of questions that are being asked post-SSAC in a forum for the public eye? The questions could go on for days. Crowd-sourcing is a valuable tool here. The demand is certainly out there for a more formal training of sports analysts.

Should there be someone or something that strives to meet this need? The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference itself is a private event that is a profit-seeking venture of the MIT Sloan School of Management and its sponsors. This is an oft-forgotten caveat of the entire weekend spectacle. Morey and Gelman deserve an immense amount of credit for making sports analytics a household topic. But innovation doesn’t end with SSAC alone. SSAC’s incentive is to make money, not to necessarily incite a new field of academic research.

What about the world’s leading sports content producer, ESPN? Let’s also not forget that ESPN is an entertainment venture too, with major money invested in the profits of SSAC and the individual sports leagues. ESPN employs some unbelievably bright analytical talents. They are some of the best anywhere, actually. Many spoke during this weekend’s sessions. But is ESPN using these talents – at its own site, the uniquely curious Grantland and the soon-to-be-re-launched FiveThirtyEight – in the most academic way possible to promote analytical advancement? Not really. Or at least not yet.

The next generation of sports analysts can’t rely upon ESPN or SSAC directly to support research, training and innovation in this undoubtedly profitable and growing field. So who or what will step up in the future? Who will lead the next step in the post-modern world of sports analytics?

Nate Silver’s article in ESPN The Magazine’s Analytics Issue featured one sentence that somewhat summarizes this post: “But the real sign of progress for sports analysts is the increasingly ambitious questions they are asking.”

The easiest way to affect change for now is to simply keep asking more questions. Keep prodding for more answers. It’s unsettling to wonder: Who is actually listening to these questions and who will do anything about it? For now, we’re just left to keep asking and see what happens next.

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  • Ezzie Goldish

    What’s interesting is that as a $ value, analytics serve teams better when the data is unshared than shared – which is why it likely isn’t worth the $20-25B you threw out. The more the data becomes public the less value it has to any team individually. At some point, there’s only so much zigging vs. the zag that a team can do and remain efficient, so you’ll end up with a lot of teams playing very similar styles and it will come back down to what it always has: Which team is better.

    In addition, I don’t know that a more efficient/smarter game translates to more entertaining or more dollars. The discussion has value because that itself is entertainment, but as its become closed that loses value quickly.

  • WFNYJacob

    Great comment, Ezzie. I’ll respond back in more detail soon. Some of these topics actually were discussed at the conference and/or in some other recaps that I’ve read.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Looking forward. (I know you’ve discussed the shared/unshared aspect, I was just noting its drag on value in the aggregate.)

  • WFNYJacob

    It’s phenomenal that you brought it up. It’s a great counterpoint.

  • bossman09

    Hopefully Lombardi is there learning the difference between correlation and causation.

  • mgbode

    more efficient/smarter game translates to more entertaining or more dollars

    Laettner Duke teams v. Fab-5 Michigan teams

    No doubt that those Duke teams played a smarter brand of basketball just as there was no doubt that the Michigan ones were more entertaining. The dollars, of course, were in backpacks delivered to UM’s prospects homes (couldn’t help it).