20 Highlights From the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

For the third year in a row, I spent two days at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It’s an awesome event, providing access to a who’s who list of sports icons and analytical studs (players, owners, general managers, coaches, sportscasters, authors, geeks, etc.). My only “complaint” is that two of my favorites from previous years—Mark Cuban and Bill Simmons—weren’t at the conference this year

As a Sloan School alumn, I enjoy seeing the school continue to pull off such a world-class event. I need to give a shout out to Daryl Morey (GM of the Houston Rockets) and Jessica Gelman (VP of Customer Marketing & Strategy, The Kraft Sports Group) who have been spearheading the event from its inception. Great job!

I’m using a different format for my recap this year, just providing my top 20 highlights from the event (see my recaps from 2012 and 2013). Here goes:

  1. NBA owners act like Marxists. The renowned author Malcolm Gladwell opened up his conversation with new NBA commissioner Adam Silver by pointing out what he said was an interesting paradox, “NBA owners are a bunch of republican billionaires who get together and act like Marxists.” His point was that the player draft system and profit sharing rewards poor performing teams. In a later session, Tom Garfinkel (President and CEO, Miami Dolphins) reinforced that point with the comment that “a degree of socialism is an imperative [in pro sports].” Gladwell also asked Silver (in jest) if his predecessor, David Stern, should be the first Jewish saint, since he accomplished two miracles: 1) bringing back the NBA from the drug era of the 1980s, and 2) getting the players to give back money in the last collective bargaining agreement. Gladwell did a wonderful job weaving together social commentary with an interesting discussion of the NBA.
  2. A new NBA draft system? Boston Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren shared a proposal that he has submitted to the NBA to get rid of the current draft system and replace it with a system where teams have a pre-defined draft position that has them drafting in every position over a 30-year period. This approach would remove the impetus to “tank” in order to get a better draft pick. Adam Silver said he had an initially favorable response to the concept, since he said that any discussion about tanking hurts the sport. Daryl Morey said that at the end of last season, 2/3 of NBA teams weren’t trying to win.
  3. A new NBA playoff system? Even though he wasn’t at the event, Bill Simmons still had an impact. Adam Silver said that he was fascinated by a suggestion made by Simmons to have a play-in tournament for the last playoff spot. There was some discussion at the event about ways to replicate the excitement of the one-game elimination format of NCAA March Madness.
  4. NBA replay video is being centralized. According to Michael Bantom, EVP of Referee Operations for the NBA, the NBA is going to take the replay controls out of the hands of the TV broadcast crew and put it in the hands of a centralized replay crew. On-court refs will continue to have the final say on the calls, but this new team will more quickly provide key video angles and may even provide their opinions on the call.
  5. NFL is the slowest to adopt analytics. Nate Silver (statistician, founder of the website FiveThirtyEight.com, and all-around fascinating geek) made the observation that when compared with other sports, football’s small number of games and plays does not provide as rich of an environment for collecting data and testing analytical models. In addition, Silver pointed to the fact that the NFL is so profitable and the teams are mostly family owned-businesses, reducing the motivation for innovation. Also, it was interesting to hear during another session that computers and other technology aren’t allowed in the coach’s booth during games.
  6. NFL teams need to punt less. Several times during the event, people referred to data that shows that football teams punt too often on 4th and short. As a matter of fact, one of the panelists was a high-school football coach Keven Kelley who is a bit of an icon for the amount of times he goes for it on 4th and short. One estimate was that NFL team could gain at least one-half of a win per season if they punted less. As Jonathan Kraft mentioned, most of the analysis in football takes place in the off-seasons and is focused on analyzing players and contracts.
  7. NFL refs track downs with rubber bands. I thought this was an interesting factoid: Mike Carey who used to be an NFL referee shared that many NFL refs keep track of the downs by moving a rubber band on to different fingers. They don’t fully trust the people flipping the down markers.
  8. Outcomes aren’t great indicators of performance. A lot of the analysis and research was examining ways to evaluate players, instead of outcome measures like batting average and rebounds per game. Jeff Luhnow, GM of the Houston Astros, pointed out that a baseball player’s long-term batting success has more to do with how the ball comes off his bat (velocity and vector) then it does with how many balls actually result in a hit. Rob Neyer from FoxSports.com discussed how this off-the-bat data can be calibrated to predict performance based on the layout of different ballparks. One of the research presentations examined the actual ability of NBA players to rebound based on their position on the court relative to other players and the amount of times that they get rebounds above what would normally be predicted given their situation.
  9. Next Frontier: Player performance and development. As sports teams better understand what drives actual performance, they will focus on making sure that their development organizations look for and teach the appropriate fundamentals to achieve that performance. This was a very common theme, and it included creating a deeper understanding of preventing and recovering from injuries, especially soft-tissue injuries. Zach Lowe, NBA columnist for Grantland, said that predicting and preventing injury is the holy grail. Scott Pioli, assistant GM of the Atlanta Falcons, said that “we need to find a better way to measure player hydration,” since today players just compare the color of their urine to Gatorade charts on the wall. Mike Zarren quoted his boss Danny Ainge as saying, “The best ability to have is availability.”
  10. The value of defense is on the rise. Across many sports, a lot of research is focusing on the value created by defense, while historical data has looked at offensive production. Dan Brooks mentioned that Jose Molina saved 20 runs for the Rays based on his ability to frame pitches into the strike zone. As data provides a truer measure of the value of defense, then teams will start paying more for players that can provide that value.
  11. Fan experience via drones and more. Chris Granger, President of the Sacramento Kings,  discussed ways the ball team is looking to improve fan experience by using GoPros to give new angles, attaching them to drones fly around the stadium, dancers, and to players so fans can see what it’s like to run down the tunnel. Many teams are looking at integrating mobile with the overall fan experience, including helping them find concessions and bathrooms with shorter lines. I enjoyed hearing Tom Garfinkel’s discussion about how the Miami Dolphins are looking into new products like premium tailgating, family tailgating, and a communal seating area for groups who come to the game together. I like how they’re examining the entire fan journey.
  12. Coaches tend to be control freaks.” That’s according to Bill James (if you don’t know who he is, then you probably shouldn’t have made it this deep into my blog post). He went on to say that coaches “tend to overuse strategy to give them the illusion of control.” He also said that great coaches have the tolerance for creating and capitalizing on chaos.
  13. Coaching remains old-school. Across many of the sports, it sounds like coaches are not using the insights from analytics to change their on-filed approaches. As I mentioned, football caches punt too much, baseball coaches don’t over shift enough on defense (as Rob Neyer pointed out), and basketball coaches haven’t cracked the optimal rotations. Steve Kerr, TNT commentator and former president of the Phoenix Suns, said that he typically hears from basketball coaches that “I get all of this information and I just ignore it.” Brad Stevens, coach of the Boston Celtics, said “we can get into a city at 3:00 AM and are playing that day, how much data can you use?” According to Jeff Luhnow, you have to speak the coaches’ language and bring them along step-by-step. Another reason why coaches don’t change is their risk-aversion. If they try a different approach (suggested by analytics) and fail, then they are more prone to negative feedback by fans and team management. George Karl, ESPN analyst and former coach of the Denver Nuggets, shared that he’s been called gimmicky his whole career and that “coaches who try and innovate get crucified.”
  14. Analytics alone is not enough. As at previous events, there was a lot of discussion about the need to integrate analytics within the system and not just talk about data. Brian Colangelo, former President and General Manager of the the Toronto Raptors, said that “Single greatest thing I learned is that analytics can be equally destructive if not communicated or messaged in the right way.”
  15. Mobile, mobile, mobile. That’s how I describe some of my CX trends for 2014, and it’s also how I’d describe a lot of what I heard at the event. Everything from in-game fan experience to brand building is being targeted at mobile devices. Jared SMith, President, Ticketmaster North America, mentioned that ½ of Ticketmaster’s online traffic and 10% of its sales come from mobile, double the amount from last year. Some additional data shared at the event: 30% of fans are interacting with social media while watching a game and 50% of tweets related to television are about sporting events.
  16. Stan Van Gundy said… One of the most entertaining people at the event every year was Stan Van Gundy, former coach of the Orlando Magic, who is willing to say whatever comes to his mind, without pulling any punches. It’s really fun to hear, because he absolutely understands the game of basketball. Here are some of his statements: “The other guys are trying to win, so you’re not going to get what you want.” “You need to coach to your personnel, not to an analytical philosophy.” “If you’re using analytics instead of watching film, then you’re making a mistake.” “You have to show me the science. I think a lot of these minutes restrictions [for players] are bullshit.” And my favorite was his description of the Philadelphia 76ers team: “If you’re putting that roster on the floor, then you’re doing everything you can to lose.”
  17. Team chemistry remains a mystery. There was a lot of discussion about human behavior. When it comes to team Jeff Luhnow said there’s no correlation between being a good person and being a good ball player. Vince Generro, author and president of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), said how they are trying to codify “chemistry,” which Nate Silver says is more important in a team sport like football than in baseball which is more of an individual sport. Rob Neyer believes the effects of culture is not much more than one win per season in the MLB.
  18. Sports analytics is still in its infancy. According to Brian Colangelo, teams need to be spending at least $250K to $500K per year and have at least three people dedicated to analytics, and the numbers are rising. Many of the teams (at least the ones at the event) are investing in proprietary analysis as a source of competitive advantage. According to SABR’s Vince Genarro, we have 50 times more data than when Moneyball was written (including 15 to 20 measures on every pitch). Nate Silver said that if he was to start today, he’d create new analytical models from scratch given the new data.
  19. Shaq was a bit of a slacker. In a session called Building a Dynasty, Phil Jackson (another person who should not need any introduction if you’re this deep into my post) shared some interesting stories. He felt that the feud between Kobe and Shaq was based on their different work ethics (in case you don’t know, Kobe is a very hard worker) and it all came to a head when Shaq waited until the start of a season to have surgery instead of doing it during the off season. Jackson used to call Shaq “fatty” to motivate him. It was also interesting that Jackson had his teams go through mindfulness training long before its recent rise in popularity.
  20. Ownership tidbits. Just some interesting comments from team owners. It was great to hear Tom Garfinkle describe sports team ownership as “stewards of the public trust,” saying that teams exist before and after owners come and go. Wyc Grousbeck, managing partner of the Boston Celtics, said that “a bunch of fans bought the team.” Vivek Ranadivé, is an author, entrepreneur and owner of the Sacramento Kings described his first experiecne with basketball, coaching his daughter’s 7th grade team, he admitted that he had no idea what he was doing but wanted to spend time with his daughter (he seemed like a super nice guy). Both Ranadivé and Grosack shared how they felt terrified when they first took over ownership of their NBA franchises.

The bottom line: I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

P.S. Here are some pictures from the event. Click them to see larger images.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5 photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

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