Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Recap

In thinking about how to put the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference this past weekend into some kind of perspective, I'm asking myself what were the deepest impressions I was left with. And the one that stuck with me most was the people.

Start with the idea that the group totaled 1,000. That's up from 400 a year ago. In fact, they had 400 people this year on the waiting list alone, who couldn't get in. With that kind of volume, you're bound to be overwhelmed.

When I walked into the main ballroom for the opening remarks -- or the keynote panel at noon, headlined by Michael Lewis, Simmons, Cuban, Polian, Kraft, Morey -- I was blown away by the fact that we filled up the whole massive hall. In the hallways between sessions, packed. The panel for Baseball Analytics wasn't just standing room only; there was a huge line out the door, necks craning to peek in (TVs outside each room helped with overflow -- obviously, that panel needs a bigger room next year).

But it was more than the sheer volume: Everyone was so nice. So friendly. So enthusiastic. It wasn't like a business conference or an affinity conference (like for Trekkies or Star Wars people or Cubs fans), but the best of both worlds. But the main thing is that everyone was really excited to be there and to be around each other.

The huge group was divided into a couple of main segments: There were a ton of students -- college and MBA -- along with a slew of recent grads, which was part of the reason there was so much energy. I don't want to presume, but it felt like most weren't just interested in analytics as fans; they were hustling to try to make connections, to try to get jobs in a field they love.

And that's because of another key group there: Professionals. Team execs, league execs, media execs. If you want to work in a front office, there were a ton of folks to try to track down. If you want to write for a stats-oriented publication that has turned into a de facto development pipeline for front-office jobs, their editors were there.

In an era of the Theo Epstein executive tree (including Josh Byrnes and Jed Hoyer) and Tampa's dynamic duo of Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman -- when "Prospectus" is an even better pedigree than "JD/MBA" -- the student-attendees and pros alike were a self-selecting group that sees where things are going and want to be part of it.

I had the really unique experience of sitting down for a while with a team executive I admire to an absurd degree (no, not Theo, who wasn't there, and not Morey) for a perfectly chummy chat, and at one point, his panel coordinator approached him and let him know that they had collected 250 resumes for him to take back with him.

I actually think that next year's conference could use a "Career" panel, featuring different pieces of advice. For example, my question is if a would-be future team exec is better off getting in the organization any way they can -- getting coffee, making copies, whatever -- and trying to impress from the inside... or gaining functional skills somewhere other than sports, then trying to move over. The answer is probably both; you ain't gonna learn investment banking analyst program modeling skills necessary to be a front-office contributor if you're working in the team p.r. office and hoping to work your way up.

Here's how I see it: If you really want to be a team front-office executive, you are better off spending your summer internship not fetching coffee for a team or leading stats-oriented Web site. Start your own and own the hell out of some segment of analysis. Post daily, post brilliantly, gently pass your stuff around to folks in media who would appreciate it. If it's good -- and if you're not good, you might as well not even try -- the teams will notice. There is no barrier (at least no publishing barrier) to becoming your own expert and putting your talent on display. THAT is the fast track.

(There is probably an executive education business to be created at MIT or elsewhere that is an intensive one-year program that combines case-study work of sports-industry management with analytical skills learned in an IB analyst program. In fact, that would be a hell of a combo for MIT Sloan and the Prospectus company.)

As always, the success stories of how to make it tend to include a whole lot of relationship management and not a small bit of luck/timing/serendipity. The latter, OK: Hard to control. The former? Well, that's a big reason everyone was there. I really appreciated the folks who I saw introduce themselves directly; panelists were, for the most part, entirely happy to be approached.

To be honest, I wish I had even more of that networking skill. There were a few folks there I really wanted to meet but couldn't figure out the context in which to introduce myself; I am, of course, an idiot and should have directly approached them, stuck out my hand and said hello. Even if everything else out of my mouth was embarrassing and idiotic -- certainly my anxiety, rational or not -- it really doesn't matter. If there was ever an easy space to meet someone, it was this one.

I mean, I wasn't going to stand in line for a half-hour after a panel to try to shake Mark Cuban's hand -- not that there's anything wrong with that if that's something you wanted to do. Then again, I was a complete moron not to say something to him when it was him and me and about two other people in the privacy of the panelists' break room, particularly given that we were both at the Hawks-Mavs game the week before, and if nothing else, I could say, "Hey, how about that crazy play with Jason Kidd and the Hawks coach?" Don't ask me why I didn't say anything. At other moments, I was Julie McCoy, cruise director. Just something to work on.

All I'm saying is: If the context is right, say hi. The worst thing someone can do is impolitely blow you off -- and that says a lot more about them than you. (If you think the worst-case scenario is that you'll sound like a dumbass, you are more likely than not simply letting your nerves get the best of you. Trust me: I'm worried I'll sound like a dumbass -- and often do -- constantly. And, in the end, oh well. At least I will have taken the at-bat.)

I thought the most interesting insight came from Simmons. When asked by Lewis what the analytics industry gets wrong, Bill said they don't make it consumer-friendly enough. Agreed completely. It's not that the stats are bad; it's that the messaging is awkward. Fans want to be able to experience their sports better -- the analytics community has to figure out how to communicate their concepts more clearly, because they DO make the game more fun to understand.

Here's how I'd sum it up: Unlike within the analytics community itself, there's no need to show your work; just offer up some simple sense, and that's good enough. Just make me smarter as a fan and more appreciative of the nuances of the game. I judged a research paper competition run by the conference; my favorite was a paper that compared NBA offensive strategy to driving your car in traffic. I got his point. I think that for next year, they should add a new category of essay: Explaining an advanced, interesting piece of analytics so that the average fan can get it. Frankly, there's an entire book in that for the conference if they can generate enough entries.

Ironically, I didn't spend a ton of time at the panels. In the morning, I sat in the future of sports management. After that, I kind of flitted around. At lunch, I watched the keynote panel, then I was one session away from my own panel, so I just paced around, ducking into a panel on Basketball Analytics to see Cuban, then into a panel on Social Media to see Darren Rovell and Jeff Ma put on a show.

My own panel came in the last slot of the day -- I think a lot of people left after the Lewis/Simmons/Cuban panel... either that, or they just had no interest in The Future of Sports Journalism, featuring me moderating a panel that included Henry Abbott of TrueHoop, Rob King (Editor in Chief of ESPN.com), Howard Beck (NBA reporter for the NY Times) and Jason Fry (news industry genius). But we had a good time, and hopefully the audience enjoyed themselves.

Our panel wasn't quite "analytics"-oriented, but I think the conference is better shifting to "Future of..." rather than limiting itself to "Analytics" exclusively (although that should always be the heart of the thing). But leading edge thought is what analytics is all about, and it was fun to apply that to something I care so much about. The panel was terrific -- we all got along and brought very different perspectives. The most interesting part, to me, was a brief digression we went into about something I've been arguing for years: The scoop is dead. Or, more mildly, what's the value of the scoop anymore? I feel like we could have done an hour on that alone.

After the panel, there was a brief cocktail party in the convention center that everyone enjoyed. I was able to congratulate and compliment the extraordinary team of MIT MBA students who ran the event (under the guidance of Daryl Morey and Jessica Gelman, the conference co-founders). In particular, I want to give a shout-out to Gerry Hough, who expertly and enthusiastically organized my panel. Any readers from the sports brand-management side and have any need for a smart, personable, action-oriented, talented MBA summer intern, Gerry is your woman. Email me if I can make an introduction. But all of the student organizers were terrific, and this was as well-organized of a conference as I have ever experienced.

After the drinks, I hooked up with a slew of NBA-related folks for a dinner for around 30. I can't even list everyone who was there, although in my general vicinity were Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop, ESPN.com NBA editor Royce Webb, the NYT's Howard Beck, ESPN PER guru John Hollinger, super-trainer and ESPN.com columnist David Thorpe, Kings assistant GM Jason Levien, Draft Express founder Jonathan Givony and ESPN's Marc Stein -- who was a good sport during our panel when Rob King and I picked him out of the crowd as an example of whether scoops matter. I knew some and had never met others. I had the chance to chat with all of them, and -- again with the theme of the weekend -- all couldn't have been more friendly to talk with. (That wasn't meant to be name-droppish -- just trying to give you some color to the non-panel part of the weekend.)

In the end, like everyone at the conference, I believe in analytics. But there is a misconception that analytics is about numbers, rather than about the intersection of numbers and people.

Analytics need people both to create them and interpret them. They need passionate folks crunching them and proselytizing them. They need people advancing the cause -- and enthusiastically lining up to be and to create the future of the cause.

This was a conference about people, and sports is a much much healthier place for having the folks I saw up in Boston coming together to talk, listen, argue, mingle, solicit and connect.

-- D.S.


Matthew Glidden said...

Nice summary of the conference, Dan, and I enjoyed the journalism panel. Rob King really reminded me of Brian Williams--so quick on the draw.

The feeling of a level playing field pervaded most panels, even when Brian Burke was reminding a packed room how few sports jobs really exist and how hard people fight to keep them. That kind of background could spur competition, but attendees and team reps remain very approachable. It's a breath of fresh air.

(One recommended change: put the analytics panels in a bigger room next year! Did they really think Rob Neyer and SABR wouldn't pack the room?)

litty said...

I didn't get a chance to check out the conference so appreciate your write-up. Enjoyed your networking thoughts. Next time i'm at the same sports event/conference as you I'll be sure to say hi.

- Brian