Tickets are now on sale for the 11th MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Having been to all but one of the previous gatherings of innovators and thought leaders across the sports industry, I highly recommend heading over to the website and registering for the March 3-4 2017, conference as soon as you can.
In celebration of this ticket launch, I have put together my personal Top-11 sessions from past SSACs. In making the list I tried to limit the selections to ones for which the archived video is available on the conference website, www.sloansportsconference.com. This was not always possible, so you will have to take me at my word that the others happened essentially as I recall them…and if they didn’t, I am sure that there are plenty of people in the room with near perfect recall who will correct me. In no particular order:
2014 SSAC – Commissioner’s Perspective: One month after officially taking the reins of the NBA as its fifth Commissioner, Adam Silver sat down for a one-on-one conversation with author Malcolm Gladwell. What ensued was one hour of the most honest, transparent, thoughtful, and engaged insight anyone from a casual fan to vested stakeholder could ever want from a league chief. For this one, you will want to take the whole hour because there probably isn’t a subject they missed – except the sale of the Clippers, that firestorm was still a few weeks away.
2015 SSAC – Valuing Franchises: How Sports Teams Break the DCF: At around the 8-minute mark, Randy Vataha spoke eloquently about sports franchises as the beneficiary which constantly use each emerging technology to their advantage, being displaced by none. Across other business or technologies, and he cited examples, brands which once led in market share and/or dollar share are no longer in existence, yet professional sports franchises not only endure, they also increase in value year over year regardless of level of success on the field of play.
2010 SSAC – Alternative Storytelling: The Future of Sports Journalism: I could also call this entry, “when Rob King speaks, I listen.” In 2010, King was EVP, Editor-in-Chief ESPN Digital and Print Media, and he was part of a panel with writers Jason Fry, Howard Beck, and Henry Abbot. About halfway through the panel, the discussion turned from the emerging rapid-fire, shotgun “news” platforms like Twitter (in February 2010 good for 50 million tweets/day versus 303 million tweets/day in January 2016) to what was becoming a premium value for true investigative and long-form journalism that could not be commoditized. Jump to the 28-minute mark to hear to King’s perspective. Also enjoy the sports writer “dress uniform” on full display across this panel.
2016 SSAC – Analytics In Action: I could have probably written a blog post on the Top 11 Jeff Van Gundy Quotes from past Sloan Conferences. “You do not get a medal at the end of the year, We’re Most Rested,” would certainly have made the cut (32:00). This panel with Van Gundy, Sue Bird, Shane Battier and Dean Oliver was terrific because it dug into that place where the rubber meets the road and advanced analytics become meaningful in the win column. Worth listening to, Van Gundy spoke at 23:30 about getting player buy-in was more critical than player understanding, and Battier’s quote a minute later emphatically reinforcing this was, “this may be the most important thing said all weekend… let the plan fail you, don’t fail the plan.”
2007 SSAC – Baseball Analytics: There is no video from year one, but no one in the room for any of Bill James’ sessions in any years of the Sloan Conference will forget much of what he has had to say. In discussing a most basic analytical practice of past performances as predictors of future success, Bill was emphasizing the value of sample size. The example he used was that of a first date and whether the other person had bad breath. He said it might not be the soundest analysis to draw the conclusion that would always be the case due to the sample size of one. Oh, and Bill also wrote his email address and phone number on the board at the front of the room in the event anyone would want to get in touch with him after the conference. I assure you, he doesn’t do that anymore.
2012 SSAC – Tennis Analytics: Panels on individual sports are rare compared to those for team sports at SSAC. The panelists themselves may have explained why when they said that data analysis in tennis was “in the dark ages” relatively speaking at the top of this panel. The most startling insight for me came in the opening remarks from tennis analytics pioneer Craig O’Shannessy who stated that, “you are the second most important person on the court. It is not about playing your A game, it’s about making your opponent play their B game.” If you commit to watching this panel all the way through, you will learn that he is exactly right.
2015 SSAC – The Future of Sports and Media: This solid gold panel of (once again) NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Kraft Group President Jonathan Kraft, and ESPN EVP for global business and content strategy Marie Donoghue, discussed in detail the changing consumption habits of sports fans. Emerging distribution platforms, second and third screen usage, and the migrating dollars were discussed. When moderator Bonnie Bernstein asked Silver about the virtual reality platform the NBA was dabbling in, potentially offering an “in arena” experience to people without the hassle or expense, his thoughts on this at the 30-minute mark are not to be missed. Spoiler alert, “if we look at this on a global basis and round up, in essence 100% of our fans will never actually get to a game,” said Silver.
2011 SSAC – The Future of the Game Day Experience: It is a shame that the video file for this panel was part of a block of content lost during a data migration several years ago. This panel was moderated by Ric Bucher who was charged with balancing the commentary from Jonathan Kraft, Bill Simmons, Mark Cuban, and Stephen Jones (Dallas Cowboys). It was one solid of hour of top-shelf content. Of particular note was an exchange between Kraft and Cuban when Jonathan was discussing in limited detail the concept of having WiFi available throughout Gillette Stadium, with enough capacity so that every fan might be able to download and upload content without delay (note the year!). Cuban pounced on this like a fumble, dismissing the notion as both unattainable – quoting the outrageous amount of bandwidth needed for 70,000 people – and short-sighted for an owner to encourage the fans to turn their attentions to their handheld screens as opposed to the action on the field. While I cannot give you the original exchange, I can point to a reprise where the Krafts were proven to have been well ahead of the curve: check back into the above Sports & Media panel from 2015, at 25:45 and listen for a minute or two.
2104 SSAC – Football Analytics: A game of Inches: Moderator Suzy Kolber offered a quote from ESPN’s senior VP for global research and analytics, “stats don’t matter if you don’t have good data and quality input to collect the data.” Tune in at 34:17 to hear Paraag Marathe, EVP Football Operations for the San Francisco 49ers, speak to how this works in the real world. One must be able to communicate it to real people, with a disparate level of ability to understand it. On the whole, this was one of the best panels of all time both for content and format.
2015 SSAC – Keep Your Players on the Ice: This half-hour Competitive Advantage presentation by Ben Peterson from Catapult Sports really put into perspective that taking advantage of the insights from advanced analytics only matters if your players are actually in the game. What injuries cost teams in hockey is mind blowing. The correlation between healthy teams and success is undeniable, as well as work-load and winning percentage. (If you are a visual learner, the SSAC video didn’t capture Ben’s slides, so here is a link to one of his webinars that has much of the same info with the slides.)
2010 SSAC – Research Paper winner: There was no video of the Research Paper track when it was introduced in 2010, so I will direct fellow geeks to the full text of the winning paper, authored by Joe Sill, here. Improved NBA Adjusted +/- Using Regularization and Out-of-Sample Testing. Joe’s live presentation of his paper was well done; even better was his handling of the audience Q&A that came rapid fire as soon as he looked up from his final slide. In a room full of smartest people in the room, one can expect to be challenged, and challenged he was – from everything on how he divided the data set to the formulas to what was considered an outlier. Then Mark Cuban raised his hand and I held my breath for another zinger… one that never came. Cuban instead first shut down many of the detractors, and then offered this insight (paraphrased): “the one thing this model cannot account for is the coach’s decision. At any point in time, we know how any combination of five of our players match up against any five of their players. So, given who is on the floor for them, our coach might put out Dirk and four of you and know we will be OK, yet Dirk’s plus/minus will artificially take a hit by design. I am not knocking you by any means. This is outstanding work. I am simply saying that it is something that a mathematical model can never know.” Today, Joe Sill counts consulting for the Washington Wizards among his day jobs.
So, after signing up for SSAC17, spend some time tooling around the website picking up nuggets from the hundreds of hours of content from past conferences. It'll make you start counting the days until Nerd Camp too.