Analytics meets sports at ‘Dorkapalooza’

April 13, 2016 by John Bihn, Staff Writer

After picking up my credentials and gift bag that included a book about big data and an issue of ESPN The Magazine, I knew I was in the right place. It was the second weekend of March, and I had just arrived in Boston, site of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC), ready for two days of fascinating panels and opportunities to meet other people passionate about applying analytics to sports.

Nicknamed “Dorkapalooza” by sports columnist Bill Simmons, the SSAC is an annual conference that attracts the leading minds in the sports analytics world to Boston each year. This conference may be one of the few places where sports analysts and professional athletes are sought out with equal enthusiasm. At the SSAC, luminaries like statistician Nate Silver and columnist Bill Barnwell can be found crossing paths with athletes including retired NBA forward Shane Battier and Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker John Urschel.

Wandering across the convention center, the hallways were lined with researchers displaying research posters and start-up companies demonstrating their products. Some companies like ESPN and FiveThirtyEight had tables with writers and analysts happy to talk about their work. However, the biggest crowds flocked to the main lecture rooms, which held panels featuring successful analysts, coaches and athletes.

The conference kicked off with a panel featuring Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, the book about the 2002 Oakland Athletics that was the inspiration for the 2011 movie of the same name starring Brad Pitt (Lewis was more recently featured in the press for another book-turned-movie, The Big Short). Lewis described the process of researching his book, which involved sitting in the coaches’ office during the 2002 draft and sneaking into the lower levels of the Oakland Coliseum with a press pass. Lewis recalled, “If you lined up [the players’] bodies against the wall and had to guess what they did for a living, nobody would have guessed they were professional athletes.” The key to the Athletics’ strategy was that they took advantage of value where it could be found, highlighting the power of analytics in the process.

Nearly 15 years later, practically every professional sports team has added positions for sports analysts on their staff, making it hard to know where the next breakthrough will come from. At the basketball analytics panel, coaches suggested that improvements in tracking player usage might be on the horizon. For example, panelist Brian Scalibrine spent most of his time on the court waiting in the corner to shoot a three-pointer. He said this role was much less strenuous than setting screens or driving to the basket, a distinction not noticed when solely tracking player minutes. Yet while watching players’ minutes is important, former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy pointed out, “you don’t get a medal at the end of the year for being the most-rested.”

Van Gundy’s joke stressed a recurring theme during the conference: Analytics are an important tool in sports, but equally important is recognizing the limit of these analytics. While Van Gundy commended new technology studying player hydration, he argued that it doesn’t take a doctor to tell a player to drink some water when they’re thirsty.

The conference offered much more than just on-the-court applications of analytics in sports. One booth demonstrated an interactive map of New York City that showed changes in taxi ridership to Yankees and Mets games based on the weather or starting pitcher. A speaker from the Kansas City Chiefs described the use of social media to track the effectiveness of marketing strategies during last season’s game in London. Even professors showed their ability to impact sports, with a professor from Northwestern describing how he implemented a modified Dutch auction to increase ticket sales.

While the coziness of past gatherings may be gone, the SSAC can lay claim to a remarkable feat of drawing 3900 attendees to a conference about sports analytics. The “Father of Sabermetrics” himself, Bill James, may have best described the growth of the field. In the opening session, James said that you used to have to listen to guys like Goose Gossich, a former baseball player, who complained, “Baseball is being ruined by nerds.” But in the post-Moneyball era, James said, “Now, you can just ignore them.”

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