14 Highlights From the 2016 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

This week, I made my 5th annual pilgrimage to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As always, I really enjoyed hearing players, owners, general managers, members of the press, and experts discuss two of my favorite topics: #sports and #analytics.

This was the 10th year of the conference. I want to say congratulations and thank you to the two co-founders and leaders of this great event:

  • Jessica Gelman (VP of Customer Marketing & Strategy, The Kraft Sports Group)
  • Daryl Morey (General Manager, Houston Rockets)

Moneyball Reunion

The conference opened up with a session called Moneyball Reunion, looking back at the book that fueled the sports analytics movement. Jackie MacMullen led a panel with Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball), Bill James (godfather of sports analytics), and Paul DePodesta (key player it the Moneyball story and now Chief Strategy Office of Cleveland Browns). Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the Moneyball movie:

Interesting comments from Michael Lewis:

  • He started out researching an article on financial inequities in baseball, wondering what the Oakland Athletics’ right fielder (who made $100K/year) felt about the fact that the right fielder was making $4M/year.
  • Bill James referred to a picture of the baseball diamond that was on his wall as a “field of ignorance.”
  • “Billy Beane had to learn not to trust his intuitive judgement.”
  • When he looked at the Oakland Athletics coming out of the shower for the first time, he was shocked at how fat and un-athletic they looked. He went on to say that the trick was to “find people with some defect that was overvalued.”

Interesting comments from Bill James:

  • I was just trying to get from a question to an answer. I never thought of the use of the data by baseball professionals.”
  • There was a lot of discussion about what people can’t do, which is irrelevant. What’s important is what people can do…. You win games with what people can do.”
  • When MacMullen asked how to speed up the game of baseball today, James said to get rid of the balk rule. He said the balk rule slows down the game the same that basketball would be slowed down if the fast break was eliminated.

14 Key Highlights From the Conference

Here are some other key themes that I heard during the conference. They don’t represent a full view of the event, because I only attended a subset of the sessions.

My discussion includes comments from the following people: Bill Barnwell (ESPN.com), Shane Battier (Former NBA player),  Sue Bird (WNBA star), Bob Bowman (President, Business & Media MLB), Scott Brooks (Former NBA coach), Brian Burke (ESPN), Vinny Del Negro (Former NBA Coach), Neil Greenberg (Washington Post), Wyc Grousbeck (Managing Partner, Boston Celtics), Sam Kennedy (President, Boston Red Sox), Brian Kelley (President & CEO of Keurig Green Mountain, not a sports guy, but was on a leadership panel), Brian Kopp (President, North America, Catapult Sports), Jonathan Kraft (President, The Kraft Group), Stanley Kroenke (Owner/Chairman of Los Angeles Rams and other teams) Brian Lafemina (SVP of Club Business Development, NFL), Jeff Luhnow (GM, Houston Astros), Bob Myers (GM, Golden State Warriors), Steve Pagliuca (Co-Owner, Boston Celtics), Jim Pallotta (President and Chairman of AS Roma), Michael Rubin (Executive Chairman, Fanatics; Co-Owner, Philadelphia 76ers), Brian Scalabrine (Former NBA player and NBA Analyst, Comcast SportsNet), Nate Silver (Statistician, Author and Founder of FiveThirtyEight), Jarad Smith (President, Ticketmaster N.A.), Tom Thibodeau (Former NBA coach), John Urschel (Offensive Lineman Baltimore Ravens), Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN Analyst and Former NBA Coach), Sandy Weil (Director of Sports Analytics, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment), Mike Zarren (Assistant GM, Boston Celtics)

  1. Analytics are mainstream, mostly. In most cases, these was less debate about the value of analytics. Bird said that her ability to think about data allowed her to play longer, even as she got older and slower. Van Gundy said that he never sensed distrust of data from players, just disinterest, and he also said, “dumb gets you beat. Intelligence is undervalued in our league.” Zarren said that “every decision we make we have better data on. Burke said “we used to talk about analytics versus the old world. The war is done and we’ve won.” Del Negro said that “the more that guys have to think, the slower their feet move.”  Battier, who was a huge user of analytics to guide his NBA efforts said, “it still is not cool [as an NBA player] to be hip with the data.”
  2. Coaches play a very key role. Coaches are seen as the critical for translators of analytics for players. Van Gundy said you have to give coaches information that is relevant to winning and “as a coach you have to filter out the garbage.” He also discussed how the players need to know that its not the player’s fault when a strategy doesn’t work. Luhnow said that coaches have to understand the data before they can translate it to the players. Pagliuca said that great coaches simplify findings into three things that players need to do. Thibodeau said that coaches need to make sure that the team needs to understand which of the opponents shots won’t beat you in the long run, even if they hit them. Brooks said that the NBA is a relationship sport, and the coaches need to engage and empower their players. Battier said “Overall, the numbers even out. Let the plan fail, but don’t fail the plan.” Zarren said that “the lines are blurring between analytics and coaching.”
  3. Sleep is the new performance enhancer. There was a lot of discussion about sleep, and it;s importance for maintaining a high level of player performance. Bird says she has seen great results from taking “coffee naps,” which is where she drinks a cup of coffee and then immediately lays down in the darn and naps for 20 to 30 minutes. Thibodeau said that real rest for players only happens when they sleep. Zarren joked that maybe players should wear sensors at night (to make sure they aren’t our partying). Morey said that they’ve used data to shift a lot of activities like shoot arounds, scheduling, and staying over night at location to help the players get more sleep.
  4. Personalizing for fans is mission critical. Teams are trying to better understand and connect with fans by providing tailored offerings and experiences. Smith said that fans want thee things: 1) The team to win; 2) Special access; and 3) Flexibility. Kraft was proud of the Patriots effort to create a single consolidated database of 5 million fans that provides a more comprehensive view across touch points. Pagliuca discussed how they had little information about season ticket holders when they bought the Celtics, but have worked hard to get to know them and development engagement strategies, like Asian night. Rubin discussed the value of “micro moments.” For instance, when Klay Thompson has a great game, run a marketing campaign the next day to fans of Thompson. Smith discussed how mobile is critical for capturing more information about customers and for delivering more personalized experiences. Kraft discussed the Patriot’s app for season tickets holders includes special interviews with players and even an alarm clock with a wake-up message from players.
  5. Ticket pricing is becoming even more variable. Teams are exploring way to capture more value from their tickets by adjusting pricing and building more flexible ticket options. Smith discussed the need for more partial season tickets and “time share” tickets. A fan may want to take a child to many games, but the entire little league team to one game in the season. He also discussed the need to maximize event revenues for the people who invest in making them happen (teams and promoters), not for the aftermarket brokers. He said that the decrease in the secondary market is a sign of their success.
  6. International replaces kids as the growth strategy. A lot of the discussion by speakers about growth last year was centered around engaging younger people in their sports. This year, those discussions about kids have been replaced by discussions about international expansion. Kraft talked about having the Patriots having fan groups in 80 different countries. Grousbeck said he and the new ownership team of the Celtics underestimated the value of international opportunities and media rights and that Celtics “make a lot of money streaming games in China.”
  7. Players brands are growing. Although this was not a repeating theme, I thought it was an area that will likely have a long-term affect on sports. As fans become more connected with a player, than with a team, there will be significant implications on marketing plans and the structure of player contracts. Rubin said that more than ever fans are behind players as much as they are behind teams. He mentioned that one NBA player’s jersey is the #1 selling across 47 states.
  8. Training is a key area of focus. While in-game analytics have always in the spotlight, it looks as though more energy is moving towards making sure players are as ready as possible to perform. Zarren mentioned a time he asked Rajon Rondo how far he had run during a game and Rondo estimated that it was 7 to 9 miles. The data showed that it was 4.2 miles. Zarren explained that this type of data is critical to defining individualized conditioning plans for each player. Kopp discussed a metric that his company has called “player load,” which includes the physicality of the game, allowing a better understanding of the toll on players’ bodies. Zarren said that in 10 years we’ll look back and think that our focus on players’ minutes was silly.
  9. Wearables and more wearables. There were a lot of sessions that focused on wearable technologies or that tapped into data from them. The combination of data on activity and biometrics will unlock new understanding of player performance. A lot of the effort is focused on training, as opposed to in game data. I did not attend a lot of those specific sessions, but it sounds as if technology integrated into clothing is preferred over wearing monitors. Also, we are probably going to see some tension over who has access to the biometric data.
  10. Live events continue to rock. In previous events, teams discussed competing with the comforts of watching games from home, but that issue seems to have dissipated. Smith said that its a myth that people aren’t going to stadiums because they can stay home and watch their HDTVs. They see the opposite happening, as live events are growing, He talked about the shift from people collecting things to collecting experiences. Lafemina said that he’d rather focus on NFL fans’ actual experience in a stadium than their virtual reality.
  11. What the heck is analytics. There were many different discussions trying to define analytics. Greenberg said that analytics deals with variability, but people often misconstrue a 75% probability as 100%. Silver said that analytics requires hypothesis testing and acting questions and that skepticism is a core part of analytics. He also discussed how analytics is a tool, and that you need to combine them with other tools. Urschel said that Bill Belichick may not use explicit analytics, but he uses implicit analytics by adjusting models in his head over time time.
  12. Analytics are still sometimes misused. I thought I’d share some of the ongoing discussions about how people misuse analytics. Zarren talked about availability bias, how people grasp on to metrics. His example was how people are reading too much into the NBA’s plus/minus data. There was a discussion about how fans like to see block shots, but the real measure of a good defensive big is keeping players from making a shot in the lane to begin with. Weil talked about the importance of knowing the difference between descriptive and prescriptive analytics. Myers quoted something that he had heard, “analytics is like a bikini. It shows you a lot, but it doesn’t show you everything.”
  13. Football turns to player acquisition analytics. Football has fewer games and more player interactions than other sports, so it’s hard to develop in-game insights. But there’s a lot of work in using data to help NFL teams acquire the right players. Weil said that while in-game sample sizes are small, they have a good sample of data from prospects every year. Barnwell said that you can’t use the data to try and confirm that a player is good. Burke said that you can look at data and make good rules of thumb, like it;s a bad idea to trade-up during the draft.
  14. Modernize Leadership comes to sports. During many of the panels with team executives, I heard elements of what we’ve called the shift to a new way to run an organizations, Modernize Leadership. DePodesta who recently moved from the NY Mets to the Cleveland Browns said that “shared values make it easier to make unpopular decisions. Without it you make a lot of one-off decisions.” What does he want from an owner? Someone that “will go on the roller coaster with me, even through it may not always be fun.” Bowman said culture trumps everything and success it about how you get great people to be great. Lafemina said, “all success is downstream from culture. ” Kelley said that the trick to a solid merger is to start by finding the common values across the two organizations (he mentioned Keurig’s 4 core values).

Interesting Miscellaneous Tidbits

Here are some other interesting moments during the conference:

  • I was incredibly impressed (and surprised) by John Urschel. He’s a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, but that’s not even close to all that he is. He graduated from Penn State with a 4.0 GPA, a Master’s Degree, partnered with a consulting company that uses math and science to write persuasive advertising language, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Applied Mathematics from MIT during the offseason.
  • My favorite panel moderators were MacMullen and Scalabrine. MacMullen was well informed and passionate about the topics. Scalabrine was also energetic and his whimsical approach was fun. Scalabrine was teasing Brown about about how the Celtics beat the Cavaliers (when Brown coached them) and Brown had a great comeback: “hmm, I don’t remember you playing in any of those games.”
  • Scalabrine said he has no idea how he had an 11 year career in the NBA. Then he said he really only had a 9-year career and his last 2 years was just a favor from Thibodeau.
  • MacMullen asked Morey why his team was so much worse than last year when they have mostly the same players. His answer: “We’re just bad on defense.”
  • Bowman said, “When the Browns hired Paul [DePodesta], I thought it was the most interesting [sports] story of the year.”
  • Kudos to NBA’s Team Marketing & Business Operations group. It was mentioned several times as the best practices across sports for sharing disseminating learnings across teams.
  • Pallotta said that “In [European] soccer, we don’t share S**t.” As they compete with all of the other clubs for players and sponsors.
  • Burke had a unique take on the Seattle’s goal-line pass (resulting it the Patriots interception) in the 49th Superbowl. Like many others. he thought that Seattle should have run the ball, because pass plays have a more significant chance of a penalty than running plays.
  • Kelley said, “I’m paranoid that someone will do to us what we did to the coffee industry.”
  • Here’s what the Evolution of Ownership panelists say that they look for in a new hire:
    • Grousbeck: Inner confidence, see a goal and get there, team players
    • Kennedy: Passion, humility, team player (goes for the greater good)
    • Kroenke: Intelligence, energy, integrity
    • Lafemina: Smart, strong character
  • During the 1-on-1 with Silver, there was a lot of discussion about Donald Trump and the elections. Here are some tidbits that he shared:
    • There’s never been a phenomena like Trump before. This is pretty F***ing weird.
    • Trump is wildly unpopular with a majority of Americans.
    • Clinton has a 95% probablility to be the Democratic nominee and Trump is 67% probability to be the Republican nominee
    • The republican party was disorganized in their early response to Trump, allowing 17 candidates was a sign of dysfunction.
    • He felt like the Washington Post has had the best election coverage.
    • He didn’t vote in 2010, 2012, 2014 elections and may not vote in this one either.
    • When asked which sport is the hardest to predict an outcome, he said hockey, adding that the outcome from a hockey game is not much different than random.
  • Kennedy and Grousbeck agreed to the concept of having a Celtics game played in Fenway Park (count me in!).

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

P.S. You can read my summaries from the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 conferences.

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.

One Response to 14 Highlights From the 2016 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

  1. Tim O'Keefe says:


    All these insights are great! As a sports business nut, it’s fascinating how the analytics trends you hear so much on TV is actually translated. How much did you hear regarding customer experience (i.e. what you talk about with unstructured data, organizational siloes, etc.)

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