A weekend at the Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference


Sports nerds from around the world came together this weekend for MIT Sloan’s seventh annual Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Led by Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey and The Kraft Sports Group’s Vice President of Customer Marketing & Strategy, Jessica Gelman, the conference featured around 30 panels that the 2,700 attendees could attend and take part in. 

Speakers included billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, famed statistician Nate Silver, ESPN “godfather” John Walsh and many more.  Attendees were treated to a weekend of discussion about how advanced statistics will continue to be used in different realms of professional sports. Here are five important takeaways from this year’s SSAC:

There is still plenty of uncharted analytics space across all sports

Despite Michael Lewis’ famed “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” having been released nearly 10 years ago, many panelists made it clear that there is still a world of opportunity waiting for aspiring sports analytics specialists. 

For example, while sabermetricians may have dissected the game of baseball thoroughly – FanGraphs.com stands as one example – rapidly improving statistical databases such as PITCHf/x and FIELDf/x will continue to open the door to more research in baseball alone. 

Additionally, according to Morey, basketball analytics will soon be reduced to a stage of infancy when XYZ data, which accounts for dynamic play among teammates on the court at once, becomes readily available. And analytics in football are far from common, as San Francisco 49ers COO Paraag Marathe noted that NFL management squads are only recently starting to buy into advanced metrics for judging players and teams.

Across all sports, teams will add analysts to find an edge

While members of the audience may have found it difficult to acquire internships and jobs in the world of sports analytics, the speakers reiterated that with enough commitment to research, anyone has the capability of being hired by a sports franchise. 

Owners and coaches continue to realize that analytics can, in fact, improve win probabilities dramatically over time. They also realize that more money and more effort will soon be poured into analytics if it means more tallies in the win column. Author and Grantland contributor Jonah Keri notes that the word “analytics” is broad for good reason: every team is developing its own way to analyze game data. Sports like baseball have accumulated statistics dating all the way back to the 1800s, so as a result, research possibilities are endless.

Data is analyzed differently from sport to sport

Interestingly enough, analytics vary dramatically from one sport to the next. For instance, baseball is extremely individual-oriented; despite being a team sport, it is much easier to quantify the abilities of players on an individual basis. 

On the other hand, basketball analytics has become substantially more useful for figuring out how five players interact with each other on the court. In other words, Daryl Morey is more concerned with how James Harden and Jeremy Lin can find each other on the run rather than how they score individually. Not that comparing them as individuals is useless, but sports like baseball will always be better served to compare the Bryce Harpers and Mike Trouts on different teams.

Developing advanced data is a transparent business of its own

Another important message from the weekend is that in this day and age, stats are everywhere. Believe it or not, it’s easier for some people to click into a baseball player’s game log than their own email accounts. 

This is an age of transparency in sports. The problem is not accumulating data sets, but manipulating them to a point where new conclusions can be drawn. Readers love debating situations like the NFL Rookie of the Year race, and with advanced metric data at fans’ fingertips they can finally use statistics to back up their arguments about why Robert Griffin III is better than Andrew Luck or vice versa. 

As former MIT blackjack player Jeff Ma put it: “Humans are good at asking questions, and computers are good at answering them.”

Analytics are important, but not the be-all and end-all

One final point gleaned from this weekend’s conference is that while general managers, owners and coaches are all starting to commit themselves to a profound use of analytics, sports are at heart a form of visual entertainment – and that will always inform peoples’ conclusions.

“Sometimes you have the numbers, but not all of the information,” ESPN’s Herm Edwards said. While probabilities might say that all NFL teams are better off going for a first down on 4th-and-1, computers don’t necessarily account for players like two-time Super Bowl winner Ray Lewis. Another issue is that some owners will never be able to buy into analytics. Overall, the serious use of advanced statistics is still a very new concept, and it will continue to be a process for management teams to figure out the best way to exploit strengths and weaknesses by using numbers.