We’re more than a week removed from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and essentially everything of importance has been covered by individuals far more capable and qualified. One thing has been gnawing at me though: what’s the point?
*note: If you’re interested in more information about the events at the Sloan Conference, I can’t recommend the coverage by the Truehoop Network highly enough.
In the idle moments before the first panel of the 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, in Ballroom B/C of the Hynes Convention Center, a colleague casually chatted about the frivolity and guilty pleasure of silly, lottery-esque bets. “Excuse me, are you guys talking about sports betting?” a student behind us interjected. “Because a parlay is a complete suckers bet and you’d be better off betting the individual lines. I’m working on a prediction model.” And the race for who was the smartest person in the room was underway.
There’s a common conception that Sloan is meant to reveal the dark arts of a professional sports franchise; to lift the shroud on trade secrets and proprietary analytics. At one point, this notion might have been true. When Daryl Morey established the SSAC in 2007, the analytics movement in the public consciousness wasn’t just in its infancy, it was still in gestation. Less than 200 people navigating the endless halls of MIT, trying to identify the next lecture like constellations in the sky.
Somewhere along the way, the early adopters in the NBA acquired success. Morey constructed average but winning teams, constantly collecting assets with Pokémon fervor until those evolved into not one, but two superstars. Owners took notice and steadily began hiring the front office staffers of the more forward-thinking organizations: Sam Presti, Rich Cho, Dennis Lindsey, Rob Hennigan, Sam Hinkie, etc. As the “nerds” proliferated throughout the league, the need and agency to collaborate on data or technique declined; they all attended the same lectures. They’re a part of the same graduating class.
Outside the packed ballroom panels and research paper presentations, vendors lined a briefly relaxed hallway. There is a table about data storage and the need for more advanced computing. Another suited group measures vertical jump with optical cameras. A trio stands behind a plethora of charts and widgets that track athlete impact and movement. And then there is a simple, clean table with a monitor off to the side showing nothing but a daily fantasy site.
FanDuels wasn’t there to drum up new customers, although surely they wouldn’t turn any away, but theirs was typical goal of business development and affiliate creation; network with other company representatives, expose their business to intelligent, young go-getters. Merely the presence of a fan-oriented organization as both a vendor and sponsor of SSAC hints at the evolving nature of the conference: it is an All-star Weekend for front office executives.
Much like Fan Fest, coaches and general managers are trotted out to adoring fans, admirers and MBA candidates with pitch in hand. High-ranking writers, reporters and analysts are giddily greeted by aspiring bloggers and journalism students. And in this vein, SSAC is highly successful.
What grows a fanbase? One tactic would be the literal: quantity. Increase the viewership, the reach of a sport, and the number of fans also grows. Another path would be to develop the quality of fan, something Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a “Maven.” Mavens are the individuals relied upon to connect us to new information. They have a voracious appetite for new data, to accumulate knowledge and solve problems.
It seems undeniable that the SSAC’s primary function now is to increase the number of sports mavens. Much has already been written in regards to the proprietary nature of SportVU and the ivory castle in which select research groups are granted limited access to the trove of data. But what benefit does that serve analysts for franchises? They already have access to the data, utilizing it in methods left clandestine. Thus, the primary purpose is to serve as a public application for hire, and secondary to whet the appetite of increasingly rabid fans that covet information.
But there’s very few actionable information in the presentations, in part because there are no traditional basketball minds involved with the research groups. The method of approach is that of the observer, which, in layman’s terms, is the fan. The spectator.
“So I worked for the Suns for a couple of years, when I was at Harvard. And one of the things I realized, the number one thing I realized was how little I knew about the game of basketball. And it was humbling coming from outside. And so when so many people tell you the same thing, and so many people who are so knowledgeable about the game, you kind of start to wonder, ‘Maybe we’re not looking at this in the right way.’”
Franchises don’t need researchers to dictate the direction of analytics. They have no incentive to share their basketball strategists. As teams gain more and more expertise, they are less and less inclined to collaborate. Meaning the only ones left to digest everything are the fans and public. I’m reminded of a comment Doc Rivers gave at Coaching U Live in 2010:
“This is one I live by: ‘Experts are closed, beginners are open.’ When you become an expert, stay open-minded. I don’t know who told me that, but it’s been with me a long time.”
And you begin to wonder if the idea of “the smartest person in the room” is the dragon’s tail everyone chases.