11 Highlights From the 2015 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

This week, I attended the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Once again, I really enjoyed hearing players, owners, general managers, members of the press, and experts discuss two of my favorite topics: #sports and #analytics. Here are 11 highlights from the sessions that I attended:

1) The Van Gundy family is entertaining. My highlights from last year’s conference included several memorable quotes from Stan Van Gundy (Coach of the Detroit Pistons). While Stan didn’t speak at the conference this year, his brother Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN Analyst and Former NBA Coach) who said that his brother “Stan has steel balls” filled the void with his very outspoken approach. One of the funniest moments was Van Gundy’s rant about how to coach a 4th grade girls basketball team [in response to something that I heard Vivek Ranadivé (Majority Owner, Sacramento Kings) say last year]. He pretty much said that the trick is to get two of the lower performing girls not to show up so that you can have your two best girls play for most of the game.

2) Shane Battier was basketball analytics’ ground zero. Let me start by saying how impressed I was with Shane Battier (College Basketball Analyst, ESPN; Retired NBA Player). Not only was he styling some sharp green pants (see below), but he was incredibly smart and articulate. Daryl Morey (GM of the Houston Rockets), who traded for Battier, said the trade was the first one based on analytics and he got killed in the press for it. While Battier didn’t have great numbers, Morey could tell that his game was a strong complement to the Rockets’ key players, Yao Ming and Tracey McGrady. Michael Lewis, who wrote a great exposé on Battier in the New York Time called The No-Stats All-Star), described Battier as a “lab rat who understood the experiment.” Battier refined his game to focus on the places where the analytics said he added the most value to his team, defending opponents’ best player and shooting 3 point shots.

3) Communications and relevance is critical. Scott Pioli (Assistant General Manager, Atlanta Falcons) said that “Analytics are only as good as they can be communicated.” A great example of this is how Jeff Van Gundy got his team to change based on the fact that basketball analytics showed that 3 point shots are considerably more valuable than mid-range jumpers. Shane Battier said that when Jeff Van Gundy (his coach at the time) told him that “2 point contested baskets don’t beat us” it was liberating. Van Gundy was pretty much taking telling his team that it was okay if the opponent hit a 2-point shot on them, allowing them to focus on defending the 3-point shots. Shane Battier suggested giving players a few tips from the data, and when it works they will be addicted to it like a drug. As Matt Birk (Director of Football Development, NFL, and former NFL player) said: “As a player, you just want to know what data matters to me.”

4) Hockey is lagging in analytics. Brian Burke (President of Hockey Operations, Calgary Flames) was a great panelist, holding absolutely nothing back in his remarks. Andrea Kremer (Chief Correspondent, NFL Network; Correspondent, HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel”) described Burke as the “anti-analytics guy” after Burke said “Analytics is like a light post for a drunk, useful for support, but not for illumination.” He went on to say that “This is still an eyeball business. The thought that you can sit behind a computer and find an athlete is bullshit.” It’s no surprise that Nate Silver (Statistician, Author and Founder of FiveThirtyEight) said that hockey is far behind in on-ice player tracking, and that we don’t know much more about hockey than we did 20 years ago.

5) Brian Burke hates even the thought of tanking. The notion of tanking (trying to lose for a better chance at a good draft pick) came up several times during the conference, most often associated with the Philadelphia 76ers. But when Burke was asked about the topic, his disdain for the idea was palpable. He said that any executive who instructs his/her team to tank should be fired. He also said that if he ever told his team to lose a game that his captain would punch him in the face.

6) Player location data is maturing. Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen a lot of analysis in basketball based on the SportVU, a system of cameras and algorithms extracting x, y and z positioning data for all objects on the court. The research built on that data is getting even more sophisticated, as I saw research presentations on simulating games (useful for optimizing line-ups) and identifying who’s covering whom (critical for accurate defensive statistics). This year, we heard that the NFL is using ZEBRA’s technology to tag and track every player on the field and MLB is using statcast to track player movement in all parks. Over time, I believe that this data will dramatically change how sports teams evaluate, train, and pay athletes as they better understand what specific skills at each position add the most value to their teams.

7) Rob Manfred’s thoughts on the MLB. I tend to enjoy sessions with commissioners, and this year’s discussion between Rob Manfred (Commissioner, Major League Baseball) and Brian Kenny (Host, MLB Network) was no exception.

Here’s some of what Manfred shared:

  • Negotiations (with MLB Players Association) is about preparation. He spends a lot of time in between sessions trying to understand what he heard. Not the offers being made, but what the players were actually looking for.
  • He’s concerned about pace of play, not necessarily the length of games. He wants to take some of the dead time out of the game.
  • He recognizes that the MLB schedule is very long. He’d like to see fantasy games that require less commitment than the full 162 game season. He even said he could envision a 154-game season at some point in the future.
  • He can envision adding two teams to the league from Canada and Mexico.
  • He’s a huge fan of the World Baseball Classic.
  • He said that two things drive affinity to the MLB: playing baseball as a kid and going to see a game as a kid [Bruce’s comment: I still remember my first trip to Fenway Park as an 8-year-old kid]. So the MLB will work to increase the number of kids who have those experiences.

8) Fan experience continues to evolve. There were a lot of different sessions that touched on fan experience. Here’s some of what I heard:

  • Jonathan Kraft (President, The Kraft Group which owns the NFL Patriots and MLS Revolution) discussed the expansion of mobile functionality and access in NFL stadiums. Kraft said that Marc Cuban said he was crazy five years ago at the conference when he said that the patriots were investing in wifi in their stadium, but it’s a key to enhancing the in-stadium experience. Services like wait times at bathrooms, location-based offers, and social media feeds within the stadium are part of the offerings. Several teams are in trials with location beacons in their stadiums/buildings.
  • Adam Silver (Commissioner, NBA) wants to see the ability for fans to have “one click transactions” to purchase single games from places like Twitter feeds.
  • There were a number of discussion about using virtual reality to enhance fan experience, in stadiums and at homes. I heard several people mention trials using the technology Oculus Rant (now owned by Facebook).
  • Marie Donoghue (Executive Vice President, Global Strategy and Original Content, ESPN) said that people who engage in social media during games are more engaged fans. So they will continue to encourage social elements. That’s why Silver said the NBA helps players get authenticated on Twitter and Instagram.
  • Jennifer van Dijk (Senior Vice President, Digital, Wasserman Media Group) said that “Next to religion, sports is the best aggregator of people.”

9) (Re)engaging kids is a key concern across sports. As I mentioned above, Manfred said the MLB recognizes the importance of youth baseball and early experiences going to games on long-term fandom. R.C. Buford (President of the San Antonio Spurs) mentioned that there’s a lack of skill development in youth basketball and it needs to be revamped. Amy Brooks (Executive Vice President, Team Marketing & Business Operations, NBA) said that the NBA held 20 clinics in five boroughs across NYC and got 1 million kids to play basketball, saying they’ll be doing more of those clinics because, “that’s how to engage the youth in basketball.” Scott Pioli said that kids are disappearing from youth football because of the fear of injuries and young NFL players have less skills and fundamentals. Ben Lindbergh (Staff Writer, Grantland) felt that amateur baseball is the best place to spend extra money that the MLB may have. Tim Zue (VP, Fenway Sports Group) said that one of the key areas of focus for the Red Sox is to encourage 4- to 6-year-olds to come to the park. Brian Burke said that youth hockey is under siege from concussions and that rinks are getting old and it’s too expensive for kids to play hockey. Burke suggested copying what Germany has done and provide blueprints for ice rinks, to lower the costs for local communities.

10) Player health analytics will be growing. Jonathan Kraft discussed the need to use big data and analytics to better understand player fitness, wellness and training. He believed that by tracking player movement, exertion and hydration, they should be able to do a much better job of predicting and reducing soft tissue injuries.R.C. Buford said that there needs to be a shift from 80% focus on injury treatment to 80% focus on injury prevention. Adam Silver felt that the NBA should collect all of the medical data across the league (which is now held by individual teams) so that teams could do a better job of analyzing and avoiding health risks. Nate Silver suggested that sports teams should make the health data public, and allow for the immense volume of crowd sourced analysis to uncover insights and identify innovative approaches to sports health management.

11) Other miscellaneous items. Here are some of the other interesting items from the conference:

  • John Forese (SVP and General Manager, LiveAnalytics, Ticketmaster) said that more than 50% of the traffic at Ticketmaster comes form mobile devices or tablets.
  • Brian Cusack (Industry Director, Google) said that he prefers the words “optimize” and “iterate” instead of test when Amy Brooks mentioned how the NBA is doing “A to Z testing” (instead of just A/B testing). Why? Because testing suggest right and wrong, and something that doesn’t work today may work tomorrow.
  • Teams have different target demographics, and Millenials are key to the Atlanta Hawks, which is why Brooks said that the team had a Tinder-themes “Swipe Right Night.”
  • Sandy Alderson (General Manager, New York Mets) discussed MLB’s push to speed up the game  said that “We may watch David Ortiz play with his wrists for five minutes, because he’s entertaining to watch. But the problem is when a backup shortstop plays with his wrist bands.”
  • Alderson also said “the more we understand the data, the more we understand the game. We used to focus on pitch speed, because that was the only thing we measured.” He said that the data “allows a more balanced approach to understand and develop players.”
  • Tim Zue mentioned that the Red Sox used secondary ticket pricing data from Stub Hub to created variable pricing zones. They also used dynamic pricing for Green Monster seats and it worked well. The club also calculated the “option value” for playoff tickets that are included in the package offered to season ticket holders. He didn’t share the results, but said it shows that it was large enough that they could charge season ticket holders more for tickets (but they weren’t planning to do that).
  • Chris Granger (President, Sacramento Basketball Holdings) said “I think social media saved the Kings. I don’t think we’d be in Sacramento, it saved our city.”
  • R.C. Buford said that the the Spurs’ first evaluation of a player is based on fit with the culture.

The bottom line: I can’t wait for next year’s conference!

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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