Two Worlds: MIT Sloan Analytics Conference Has Some Value, It’s Just Down The Hall

There are two worlds that exist at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. There is the world of the celebrity profile and the world of groundbreaking research

A crowd tries to push its way through double doors. The room is already at capacity and men in blue and gray suits are left peeking in, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the many NBA related research paper talks. It’s just after lunch and people are trying to find their way. This talk seems interesting, and the more people that stand outside the more people want to join. They want to know what’s going on inside. They want to see what all the fuss is about. I just want to learn something at this point in the day.

The crowd is informed there is an overflow room next door. We won’t be able to watch the presentation in person; we will get to watch it on any number of televisions at each corner of the room. But few people pay attention after the move to the next room. There are better things to do, and now that you’re not included in the club inside the room, the talk loses interest from the outside. This talk only matters if you’re there in person, if you’re one of the lucky people who get to rub shoulders with one another. Also, this talk isn’t given by anyone whose name you’d recognize on the street. Robert Ayer may be a graduate of the MIT Sloan Business School, but he’s not celebrity writer, no talk-show personality, he’s no professional athlete and he certainly doesn’t own a franchise. So who cares what he has to say? Right? Well, that’s the misconception.

Ayer says more in his short presentation about analytics and how they can be used than any of the panels on the first day of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. This is where the good work is being done. These talks, these papers, they’re the gems. This is where the action happens.

I stand at one of the standing room tables with my notebook out jostling notes down about the talk — “Dirk Nowitzki is a player-type five, he’s an all around player, but player traits can change from year to year and he hasn’t always been a player-type five” — and watch the crowd. People shuffle in and out of the room, kind of watching the televisions. There are too many distractions. It’s a nerds paradise. I wish I wasn’t working. Instead, I wish I was able to play air hockey with the Boston Bruins mascot, a large life-like bear, not a plush, lovable character, which makes the mascot stand out in the world of sports. Who wouldn’t want to beat a bear in air hockey?

There is a golf simulator, but no one tries it while I’m in there in fear of embarrassing themselves with a horrendous swing in front of a crowd. There’s an arcade basketball shooting game, the one where you try and make as many shots as you can in an allotted time, and people keep that going. It’s loud and at times over takes the speakers projecting Ayer. It only makes sense people keep playing it, though, and ignoring the research — we’re talking basketball here, we’re talking numbers, and that things keeps a score. Ayer’s is talking “Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How a Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other.” Or so that’s what I’m told by the title of the talk. I have little to know idea the exact details — numbers aren’t my specialty.

Ayer gives a presentation I can’t understand, but it’s still fascinating. He wants to find out what player types make the best line-ups for teams. What general manager wouldn’t want to know that? What fan wouldn’t want to be able to figure that out so they can criticize said manager? I know I do.

I have no idea the math he’s talking about. I barely made it out of high school math. If it isn’t Algebra, simple Algebra, I’m lost. I need someone to explain it to me. Except, the guys in this room don’t seem like they can explain it either. They seem partially interested. They came here for the crowd.

This session probably looked like the best thing to be at right now. There was an over-flow crowd, but it’s dwindled and people come and go. Very few people stay in the overflow room. It’s dark. It’s loud. It’s pushed away from the main events in the back of the conference, where the research paper talks take place, and so many people aren’t here for the research papers. They’re here to network. They’re here to see the big show.

Ayer stands straight, his back perfectly aligned, shoulders back, and he speaks in a slow but thoughtful cadence, pressing each word from his lips and making sure to sound out every syllable cleanly. He’s clean cut. But what separates him from the rest of the suited men at the male-centered conference is his tailored look. His suit fits right. It doesn’t drape or hang on him, it isn’t too tight, and it’s not wrinkled. I believe every word that comes from his mouth, even if I don’t understand it.

He has taken a public speaking class — I’m sure of it. Ayer’s run through this presentation 100 times before. He doesn’t need any teammates and his teachers knew exactly what player type he is and who to pair him up with. He’s far and away the most accessible and interesting person who gives a talk because he makes it ground level. He makes the information accessible. And then he’s done. It’s over. Time to find the next show.

The Hynes Convention Center doesn’t make an impression in Boston’s Back Bay. It has little personality.

Outside the Hynes is Boylston Street, a bustling street with plenty of action, plenty of nightlife, restaurants and bars. One block away is Newbury Street, Boston’s high-end boutique shopping and dining street. I only knew where the convention center is because there is a stop on the Green Line for it. I had no idea where it was if I ever got off that stop, though.

I’ve drank and ate at more than a few bars within a block of the Hynes. I’ve lived in Massachusetts all my life and I’ve never been able to pinpoint this spot or this building as a place where people meet to talk about business, to convene and discuss something they love. I always thought it was just a hotel with a restaurant next to it with a reasonably priced parking garage next door.

My complete lack of knowledge about the Hynes makes it the perfect building for this conference and the people here. We all ignored the analytics movement in sports for so long, when it was right under our noses. The The MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference puts that world of sports and math on display, getting people excited about the future, about how teams can get competitive and business advantages over their opponents by using numbers. It’s the one time a year the smartest people in sports are suppose to meet and talk and share idea. For the most part, though, this conference isn’t that.

After registering and walking up the many flights of escalators, I realized this convention had gone the way of the celebrity convention and more or less become a business man’s networking wet dream. I was out of my league. I don’t network well. I don’t like it. I don’t like selling myself. I didn’t even have a real press pass, my name was written on it at the last minute. I was one of the people who got lucky to get in to this new world.

The Sloan Conference was started by Jessica Gelman and Daryl Morey six years ago. Morey, a MIT Sloan Business School graduate, and Gelman linked up to teach a class on sports analytics at the Sloan School after meeting through a mutual friend. Morey was working for the Boston Celtics at the time and Gelman worked for The Kraft Sports Group, owners of The England Patriots and the New England Revolution.

According to Gelman, a co-chair of the conference and Vice President of Customer Marketing and Strategy at the Kraft Sports Group, Morey took on the role of the Houston Rockets’ Assistant General Manager in 2006, but he still wanted to teach the Analytical Sports Management class with her after moving to Houston and taking on the duties of an Assistant GM. Instead of continuing to teach the class the way they had — Gelman taught the business analytics side of the class while Morey taught the sports analytics side — the two decided to create a conference instead.

“We were already bringing in speakers to the class. So, we were just talking and said, ‘what if we turn it into a conference.’ The first year we had like 175 people who attended,” said Gelman, the conference now has more than 2,200 attendees.

The conference that first hear hosted 175 people, which now Gelman jokes is almost how many volunteers and students worked on the conference this year alone.

Morey’s career blossomed in Houston with the Rockets. He is now the team’s General Manager and Managing Direction of Basketball Operations. Along with his success, came the success of the conference.

I had no business being there and I knew it right away. I wasn’t a smart MIT or Harvard person. I’m not a successful business man — I could barely afford to pay for my media ticket. I didn’t have on a suit. And I brought a total of zero business cards with me. It was evident right away I was sitting out of my league and that I’d be a lone ranger without a clique, something everyone seemed to have, especially during the cocktail hour at the end of day one. I was in the deep end and I knew it. So I went and found a dark bar to enjoy dinner in far away from the Hynes.

At first I was impressed with the way the panels lined up. I want to see general managers and reporters talk about analytics and how it all works. I wanted to see owners and front office people talk about how they use analytics to better their teams and franchises. I thought it was a great idea. And I knew I’d struggle listening to people like Ayer talk about their work. So I knew the panels would probably be best for me.

So, I went to mostly panels, and I wish I had done the other because the world of the research papers was where the work was being done, that’s where analytics happens. That’s where people aren’t networking. That’s where people learned. I learned that Dirk is a type-5 player and that a Chris Paul for trade Deron Williams (when they were on the New Orleans Hornets and Utah Jazz just a season ago) would have been a mutually beneficial trade.

The big names bring the money and the people, though. They’re what get outsiders to jump on board. Celebrity’s sell the big tickets and the people who are really interested in something like analytics will find a way to make the most of the other programs being offered. It’s the way business works. And not only for sports conferences. You need that buzz to bring people to support the work.

Chris Jones, a writer-at-large for Esquire and the back-page columnist for ESPN the Magazine, told a crowd at Harvard earlier this year that without the celebrity driven covers on the magazine, he and the other Esquire writers would never be able to write the stories they wanted because no one would pick the magazine up on the stands. He said Esquire grabs your attention with the celebrity cover story, but holds you with the quality stories and writing inside. That’s what the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference did. It used recognizable faces and names like Mark Cuban and Scott Boras to bring people in and then it offered the good content on the side to keep people there. It’s partially how I got hooked.

People want faces they know. They want the celebrity story. Inside Esquire, Jones gets to write the important stories, and he’s proud to trick you into picking up the magazine because inside there is so much more than Justin Timberlake. I was tricked into seeing the big names but getting hooked on the side panels, on the quality work inside.

Bill Barnwell of Grantland and one of the panelists for Football Analytics, this year had a similar sentiment about the celebrity driven part of the conference driving and paying for the research side.

“I think there is a certain audience here who want to see those people who aren’t saying anything,” said Barnwell.”There is an audience who definitely has an interest in the research side, which is great. I think the reason why something like this exists is for papers like that to get more prominent and people whoa re more inclined to that are going to go there.”

Barnwell has attended the conference for three years, once as a fan, once an editor of Football Outsiders, and now as a panelist and writer for Grantland. He’s seen the evolution of the conference over the past three years and he’s excited where it’s going, even if it’s become more of a show with television shows being filmed inside the show (“The Numbers Don’t Lie” with Michael Smith was being filmed in the hallway during a rush between panels on day one).

“Its grown dramatically. There are people here who would have never have been here six years ago; people taking it seriously who would have laughed it off six years ago” said Barnwell. “It’s become kind of a job fair in ways, which I can understand people wanting to get into, there are opportunities. “

I’ve never been a big fan of sports analytics. I know that it’s a ever-expanding field of study in sports that can help teams win games, sign the right players and draft players. But it takes away from the mystique of players. And it doesn’t help teams develop talent, it doesn’t help players grow at a young age. If we have all this statistical data at young ages, kids will no longer play for fun, which they don’t do much of anyway anymore, and it would slog us down to a sports nation that nitpicks and only values the numbers instead of the grace.

There is no way to measure the beauty of watching Pedro Martinez in Fenway Park when he was at his peak. There are no numbers to describe or predict that he would come out of the bullpen in the third inning in 1999 of the fifth game against the Cleveland Indians with an aching back and pitch six scoreless innings, six dominant innings, and help the Red Sox win the series. That was sports. It was something you had to see with your eyes to believe.

There is a place for analytics. And it can be beautiful when done right and used properly. Teams can be built with numbers, but can’t be built by numbers. In the salary cap leagues of the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Basketball L League (NBA) and Major League Soccer (MLS) teams need to find a competitive edge when signing players. In Major League Baseball, teams need to work within their own budgets to build solid teams, and with ever increasing contract sizes, teams need to find other ways to evaluate talent other than with their eyes.

Analytics works wonders in the front office. Teams can track all sorts of things and tailor in stadium excitement to match their numbers and help out ticket holders. It’s a no-brainer to use them there.

I’m still skeptical of how well they work on the field or court. The Basketball Analytics panel made me even more skeptical of how sports other than baseball can use the numbers to sign players for better value, change tactics or make things easier for coaches and players.

Mike Zarren loves numbers. He loves data. And he loves the Boston Celtics. After starting out as an unpaid intern, Zarren has worked his way up to the Assistant General Manager position with the team. He’s Danny Ainge’s second in command, and he’s Ainge’s number man. He’s the salary cap man and the lead in-house counsel for the team. He’s also spent a lot of time with numbers before joining the Celtics as an management consultant. He’s one of the leading minds in sports analytics, even if he doesn’t look like the rest of the “leading minds” at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He’s boyish looking with salt-and-pepper hair and beard. He wears sneakers and isn’t dressed to impress anyone. He talks analytics and numbers with passer-bys in the hallways. And he changed the hole analytics conference on his head when he repeated Jeff Van Gundy during the Basketball Analytics panel and said, “What is analytics?”

If Zarren doesn’t know, then I don’t know. He, and the rest of the panel, was one of the few people who actually went into the troubles of analyzing data sets and how tricky it can be. Van Gundy offered a quick-wit and practical approach to the panel, but the rest of the panel seemed to agree with his assessment that the numbers can be misleading, and over hyped.

Remember, this is a conference all about the numbers and the hype. So it stood out that this panel ventured away from the hype and actually dove into the problems facing analytics in their sport. Zarren says he has plenty of ways to track data and he’s always getting more, but that he doesn’t know exactly how to use the data, yet. There are so many things going on on the court that it’s hard to put a value on every skill a player has, particularly defense, which is almost unmeasurable.

The same problems arose in the soccer analytics panel. There are so many things that happen away from the ball in sports that can’t be judged by a computer that it makes it hard to find the absolute value or solution through just the math. There are ways to use the math to make informed decisions, but there is almost always a stat to back up any opinion someone might have. Analytics is a growing field. It’s a growing study. And these panels don’t help it grow directly. They help expand the reach of analytics to more people who wouldn’t have studied or used the numbers in the past by reaching out with famous names. But it’s the papers by people like Ayers and Phillip Maymin, who authored and presented “NBA Chemistry:Positive and Negative Synergies in Basketball,” that are changing the games we love.

Right now there are two worlds in analytics. There is the world of the personality, the world of the people who study and show off the numbers and get people interested. Then there is the world of the person who sits down and creates the equations, who figures out how to use the numbers to improve the product, to improve the game and the experience.

Hopefully sports just doesn’t end up being a lot of math problems or a panel of people theorizing who would win and who should win. I hope people will still want to play the games.