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.

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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. Read more of this post

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

Analytics from Mark Cuban to Text Mining

As I mentioned in a previous post that analyzed sports enthusiasts in the U.S., I recently attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The event was fantastic! I enjoyed all of the sessions that I attended that included a who’s who list of people in the sports world such as: Mark Cuban, Scott Boras, Drew Carey, Eric Mangini, Jeannie Buss, Jeff Van Gundy, Jonathan Kraft, Mark Shapiro, Michael Wilbon, Bill Simmons, Steve Tisch, and the grandfather of sports analytics Bill James (who deservingly was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award).

I also just got back from attending the Clarabridge Customer Connections at the Doral in Miami where I gave the opening keynote speech: What Makes a Good Voice of the Customer Program? Interestingly, it was also the location of this week’s World Golf Championships so there were PGA people all over the grounds.

Given how much I enjoyed those two events, I’ve decided to list out 10 things I learned, observed, and/or enjoyed:

  • #10: It’s good to be Mark Cuban. Mark missed a couple of the sessions, but showed up for his one-on-one interview with Bill Simmons (ESPN). He was great, totally relaxed, even smacking Bill on the back of the head as he walked on stage. He talked about the NBA lockout as “...lockout bullshit. You talk about a whole lot of time on a whole lot of nothing.”  And he went onto say that the NBA stands for “Nothing But Attorneys.” In his tweets, Cuban referred to the event as the dorkapalooza. I’ve added “hang out with Mark Cuban” on my list of goals in life; he seems like a lot of fun.
  • #9: The NBA is an analytical hotbed. Cuban said that the stats that you read in the box scores for NBA games “are pretty useless.” So the Mavericks have four people at games logging information that they use to make in-game decisions. The Mavericks won the award at the event for “Best Analytical Decision” based on the team’s decision to move J.J. Barea into the starting line-up at last year’s NBA championships. In addition, the winning presentation in the “Evolution of Sports” track was titled “From 5 to 13, Redefining Positions in Basketball” that used cluster analysis to identify 13 unique types of players instead of the guard, forward, center model used in the past. Also, we heard that many NBA arenas are putting three cameras on each end of the floor so they can track the X/Y/Z coordinates of players and ball movement to fuel more advanced analysis.
  • #8: Taking action on insights is precious. I started my keynote speech by getting the audience to do a chant: “Feedback is cheap. Actionable insights may be valuable. Taking action on insights is precious.” My speech was all about how to focus voice of the customer efforts in a way that they add business value. As a part of my speech, I also discussed how many existing market research practices are obsolete. And, I ended my speech as I started it, with the chant: “Feedback is cheap. Actionable insights may be valuable. Taking action on insights is precious.”
  • #7: Big analytics vendors are missing from sports. As with most conferences, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference had its trade show full of vendors. But, surprisingly to me, there weren’t any of the big guys like SAS or IBM SPSS at the event (at least with high visibility). All of the vendors were sports-specific providers like EDGE10, StarStreet, and Team Rankings.
  • #6: Making people believe is critical. One of the sessions at the sports analytics was “The Power of Belief in Sports.” It examined some research about how athletes can improve their performance. The study that was discussed examined what happened after giving athletes performance enhancing things (like caffein or acupuncture). By doing a study with placebos, the researchers found that the level of improvement was not determined by whether or not the athlete received the enhancements. It was much more driven by whether they believed they received the enhancement and how much they believed that it would help them.
  • #5: I’m a proud Sloanie. As a Sloan alumnus, It was great to see the MIT Sloan School lead such a great event. One of the co-chairs of the event was Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets, who is also a former MIT Sloan grad. There were also about 50 other Sloan students who were active in planning and running the event. Nice job Sloanies!
  • #4: Parking in Boston is a mess. We drive into Boston on the first day to attend the sports analytics conference at the Hynes Center. There are no obvious signs as to where to park, so we ended in the main Prudential Parking lot. It’s a huge labyrinth of parking sections. After finding a spot, we walked aimlessly for a few minutes trying to figure out where to walk to get out of the parking lot — there weren’t any signs. All that was just for the honor of paying $30 for parking.
  • #3: You’ve got to speak the right language. Scott Boras discussed how different parties have different languages and you need to speak their language. Players are typically kids in their 20s who come to the ballpark every day and just want to perform better. They discuss things like weight shifts and batting stance and care about optimizing what amounts to be a pretty short tenure as a professional athlete for most of them. Managers need to figure out line-ups every day that will give them the best chance to win. Owners want to win and make money, with a different emphasis across owners. I used this point in my speech, because its critical that analytical insights are translated into the language of the people that you want to use them. A store manager does not have the same needs as a product manager, so trying to show them the same voice of the customer insights and data in the same reports won’t be effective. You need to customize what they see to the decisions that they are going to make with the insights.
  • #2: The Seattle Sounders are customer-centric, who knew? I was surprised to see Drew Carey (the actor) on the agenda at the sports analytics conference. But it turns out that he is an owner of the Seattle Sounders, a soccer team in the MLS, and a funny guy who is comfortable swearing on stage. The club has adopted some very customer-centric practices like having an advisory board of season ticket holders that provide feedback on strategies and decisions and even has the power to replace the general manager. These fan-centric efforts have really worked, as they get about 40,000 people to attend their matches. Here’s what Drew said about what they’re doing at the Sounders “If I owned a Costco, I’d do it [the same practices] there.” The Sounders appear to be a good business case to study.
  • #1: Text analytics is a requirement. For several years I’ve been advising companies to look into text analytics as a way to tap into a myriad of wasted insights from call center interactions, sales notes, social media, and open-ended comments on surveys. I even wrote a post a couple of years ago called It’s Time For Text Analytics and have listed “unstructured data appreciation” as one of the key customer experience megatrends. Clarabridge and other vendors in the space have fine-tuned the technology to serve many key customer experience use cases. I really liked some of the new capabilities that were highlighted at the event: Automatic theme detection, root cause analysis, and collaboration. Other than the price tag, there’s no reason for any large company not to have some text analytics efforts under way.

The bottom line: I really enjoy combining sports and analytics

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