Yesterday (Friday, March 3rd), I sat through Day One of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for the first time, and I can now say for certain that if there is such a thing as heaven on Earth this place is it. If you want to read up about the history of the conference, check out their website. I’m just going to elaborate a little on what events happened when, and later in the weekend or next week I’ll put up some posts relating specifically to what the panelists and presenters discussed.
I’d also like to establish that this isn’t going to be a baseball-exclusively post, so if that’s what you came here for, my apologies. It’s definitely worth the read, though.
The day started off with opening remarks from the founders of the conference, Jessica Gelman (CEO of Kraft Analytics Group) and Daryl Morey (General Manager of the Houston Rockets). From there, conference attendees had the option to go to one of two panels: Titans of the Sports Industry or The Bigger Picture: Defining League Strategy.
No disrespect to any panelists on the latter panel, but I opted to stay where I was for Titans and was not disappointed in the slightest. The panel consisted of Michael Rubin (Executive Chairman of Fanatics, an online-only sports apparel retailer), Jared Smith (President of Ticketmaster), Michael Spillane (President of Product & Merchandising at Nike), and Casey Wasserman (yes, that Wasserman). The group discussed a litany of things, and I highly recommend watching the talk in its entirety (I’m told the video will be available on the SSAC website after the conference, but I’m not sure how soon after the conference those videos will be posted).
The panelists brought up the trouble of combating counterfeit merchandise, be it jerseys, shoes, or tickets. Honestly, I don’t have a solution to the problem of counterfeiting (and if I did I probably would be very rich right now), but my dad and I discussed the possibility of switching ticketing to an entirely electronic system. This would all but guarantee that ticket scalpers would be eliminated, which would inconvenience some, but for the most part would do the job in keeping ticket prices lower, or closer to face value, on game days. I have bought tickets from scalpers on occasion, like when I went to Mariano’s last game at Yankee Stadium, because it was quite literally impossible to get tickets online, but I generally think ticket scalping is a bad practice, and this is compounded by the fact that scalpers have no shame in selling fake tickets. Switching to an electronics-only system for ticketing would likely eradicate the practice. I don’t know the best way to implement the system, but if you have an idea drop a comment below or tweet at me and I’ll let you know what I think.
After that, I went to a panel entitled Life of the College Student-Athlete headlined by Shane Battier, Marcus Lattimore, Greg McGarity (Athletic Director at University of Georgia), and Amy Huchthausen (Commissioner of the America East Conference). I don’t want to give too much about the panel away, because I’m probably going to put up a post on the subject matter in the near future, but the panel was very engaging, and both Battier and Lattimore were able to provide insight into the life of a top-level student-athlete in college.
The next activity on the agenda for me was a presentation by two chess experts (yes, seriously). In all honesty, I was only there because it preceded a presentation about Tommy John Surgery, and nothing else on the schedule for that time slot looked intriguing to me, but I was pleasantly surprised what the two speakers, Susan Polgar, a chess grandmaster, and Paul Truong, the chess coach for Webster University, had to say. The presentation was eye-opening; I hadn’t realized the immense amount of preparation that goes into each chess game. I also learned that the Webster chess team is basically the Patriots of collegiate chess, except nobody can beat Webster. Sure, they lose the occasional match, but the Webster chess team has not relinquished its #1 national ranking since its formation in 2012.
I know this is a baseball blog, but I want to spend a second talking about chess analytics, because I think chess is one of the most interesting games in existence, right up there with baseball. The thing about chess, unlike football, basketball, baseball, or most other sports, for that matter, is that there is no luck involved. An opponent could have an off game because of a distraction or some similar thing, so perhaps no luck is an exaggeration, but chess is a game almost entirely based on skill. That’s what makes the games so easy to analyze; there are a finite number of “good” moves that can be made in each situation, and the outcome of each game is contingent upon the skill level of the players involved. In chess, you can’t get an unlucky hop, lose on a 60-yard Hail Mary, or win on a 70-foot heave that somehow manages to bank in off the backboard, it’s all skill. The fortunate part of chess is that even though there are only a limited number of moves that can be made (only 20 moves are possible for white in the starting position, and of those 20, only 10 are even somewhat viable) it is not a solved game, and no two games will be the same.
While I enjoy playing chess, learning more about baseball is the reason I came to the conference, so I was very excited to hear what John D’Angelo, Director of League Economics and Strategy at MLB, had to say on the matter. Not to toot my own horn, but a lot of what was discussed was fairly common knowledge, though I did pick up a lot of new information regarding Tommy John surgery and the demographics that are going under the knife for the surgery.
I picked up a boxed lunch following the talk about Tommy John Surgery. My turkey sandwich, thank you for asking, was actually pretty solid. From there, I headed over to a Panel entitled Sports Science: The Next Frontier. The discussion mostly revolved around wearable technology and motion trackers. At one point, the moderator (Tom Haberstroh of ESPN) posed the question of whether there can be “too much data” collected. As a stat geek, I don’t think you can ever have enough stats, but with that in mind, an increased quantity of stats naturally reduces the quality of the stats. It’s imperative to ensure that the people in the industry are able to separate the valuable information from the “noise,” and while this isn’t as imperative when it comes to signing and trading players, it is crucial that the analysts and professionals get it right when it comes to the health of players. With that in mind, I don’t think you can ever have too much data when it comes to the health of players, and people in general. More is more in this instance.
After Sports Science, I had the privilege of listening to the incredibly intelligent John Urschel (Offensive Lineman for the Baltimore Ravens) discuss the merit of football analytics with three other NFL analysts. The panelists started off by discussing why teams should never punt, and why they should be going for two points more often. While teams obviously should be doing those things more often, they aren’t, and it’s probably not because they don’t know that they should be employing a different strategy, but rather that head coaches don’t want to lose their jobs. Let me give you an example: if, in the fourth quarter of a game, your team is winning by four points with under two minutes to go and you have a fourth-and-three on your own forty yard line, you should go for it. It’s a pretty simple call; if you convert the first down the game is basically over, and if not, the other team still has to drive forty yards and get a touchdown to win the game. Most NFL coaches punt in this situation and leave it up to their defense to get the stop. If a coach punts there and their defense can’t prevent the touchdown, the headlines in the paper won’t be calling for the coach’s head. On the other hand, if the coach goes for it and the offense can’t go nine feet for a first down, and then the team ends up losing, the following day’s headlines will not be pretty.
The panelists (Mike Lombardi, Chase Stuart, Sandy Weil, and the aforementioned Urschel) also discussed whether the Patriots should trade Jimmy Garoppolo, and the value of draft picks. The panel was pretty convinced that the Patriots should ship him off, since he’ll be gone after this upcoming season anyway (his rookie deal is up since he signed prior to the 2014 season), but they didn’t think that anyone should give up a first-round pick for Garoppolo. Ultimately, a team can compile as many picks as it wants, but those picks turn into players, and if the players don’t pan out, it’s a waste of a pick. With that in mind, none of the panelists thought that one year of Garoppolo would be worth more than four years of a first-rounder. The Patriots may value Garoppolo a certain way, but his price is really only as high as the highest bidder is willing to pay.
Following the Football Analytics panel, I watched a conversation between NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver. The discussion was chock full of good stuff, and this is one that I highly recommend you check out once the conference proceedings are posted online. I’m not going to summarize the entire conversation because it went in a lot of different directions, but I will offer you one of the most fun ideas of the day, proposed by Commissioner Silver: a four-point shot during the All-Star game only, and a ten-point half court shot in the last minute of the game. Would it be great to watch? Yes, probably, and since the NBA All-Star game is basically a joke at this point anyway, I think it would add some more fun to the show.
The next panel, Moneymind, was easily my favorite of the day, but again, I’m a little biased. The panel was comprised of Billy Beane himself, Farhan Zaidi (GM of the Dodgers), Sam Hinkie (former GM of the 76ers), and the aforementioned Morey. The four gentlemen discussed the effects of cognitive bias in decision-making and came to the conclusion that people are terrible at making decisions. Stay tuned for more on this panel; I’m going to do a more in-depth write-up in a few days.
The final panel of the day, The Business of Sports, featured Mav Carter (LeBron’s manager), Marie Donoghue (Exec VP of Global Business and Content Strategy at ESPN), Cole Gahagan (Chief Commercial Officer at Fanatics), Matt O’Toole (President of Reebok), and Dawn Hudson (Chief Marketing Officer at NFL), with Darren Rovell moderating. A lot of good stuff was said in this panel, and the fact that the panelists were from such diverse backgrounds led to a conversation that touched upon many areas of business. The most interesting thing I took from the hour-long conversation between these five business titans was from Mav Carter. He said “We just want to build something great. We ask [companies] if they want to be our partners and just go from there.” I’ve never taken any classes in marketing, so I had never really thought about the art of the deal in depth (except for in my fantasy baseball and football leagues, but I think that’s a little different from business deals in real life) but Carter’s insight into how he conducts himself when looking for a partner was fascinating, and was certainly a novel idea to me.
I’ll go on to recap a few of the panels more in-depth in the coming days, and stay tuned for a recap of day two, which will be posted tomorrow morning.
(Image credit: MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference)