2 sports analytics conferences scheduled for March
CHICAGO—Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro is a busy man. Spring training is in full swing, and there is work to be done to prepare for the coming season.
Thinking back to when he started in baseball, never in his right mind did he think he would be speaking at a pair of analytics conferences this time of year.
"What analytics means now, how it's applied, could never have been in the realm of my consideration," he said.
While ballplayers hit the fields all over Florida and Arizona and college basketball heads to its feverish conclusion, some of sports' brightest minds will gather in Boston this weekend for the sixth edition of the MIT Sloan Sports Conference. The brainchild of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and New England Patriots executive Jessica Gelman has been sold out for weeks.
The twist comes two weeks later, when the Society for American Baseball Research holds its first analytics conference in Phoenix. Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and general managers Chris Antonetti of the Indians, Jerry Dipoto of the Angels and Doug Melvin of the Brewers are among the scheduled speakers.
"Moneyball" may have been shut out at the Oscars last month, but analytics -- loosely defined as the use of data and technology as a tool for making decisions -- remains an important part of sports.
"I think as the stakes have gotten higher from taking positions and the sophistication continues to get elevated in those processes that the intersect of technology, data and analytics becomes one where there continue to be opportunities for organizations that deploy more resources and more human capital," Shapiro said Thursday.
Morey and Gelman were teaching a class at MIT when they came up with the idea for the Sloan conference, which has benefited from the growth of analytics. It attracted about 175 people to its first version in 2007. Three years later, it was so big it had to move off campus. It went to a two-day format last year and added a business case competition and trade show.
Approximately 2,200 people will be on hand when the 2012 conference kicks off Friday at the Hynes Convention Center. The demand was so great that organizers had a waiting list of 200 more hoping to get in.
Morey and Gelman are surprised by the rapid growth.
"We really enjoyed teaching, and we really wanted to keep going on something we both enjoyed, which was using analysis in sports," Morey said. "The one thing we knew is that it's very hard to learn from others in your sport, because there's a lot of trade secrets. But you can take ideas from other sports and apply them to yours. That was a big motivation."
While SABR will focus on baseball, the MIT conference includes a variety of topics. This year's panels cover everything from analytics in tennis, motorsports and soccer, to sports broadcast media rights to bookmaking and gambling.
The Sloan conference also is managed by MIT students, who get to network with some of sports' key decision-makers while they gain valuable experience.
"I mean really the process of running the conference for all of them is in and of itself an education. I mean they're managing a small business," Gelman said. "It's kind of the best hands-on learning that you can possible have, and it's all outside of what they're learning in the classroom, which I think is really fantastic, too."
SABR president Vince Gennaro participated in the baseball analytics panel at MIT in 2008 and came away a fan of the conference.
"They were really, to their credit, way out in front of this," he said.
The SABR conference is part of a strategy designed to expand the organization, which was founded in August 1971 at the Hall of Fame library in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The group decided to move the headquarters from Cleveland to Phoenix because of the number of major league facilities in the area. It also decided to hold a conference that was aimed more at the industry than its annual convention each summer, which is geared more toward SABR members.
"My thought was that if the bull's eye of the target were the MLB teams and their baseball operations departments, then we will certainly bring in the avid fan, the diehard fan, many of which are certainly SABR members but many of which aren't, if we can hit that mark," Gennaro said. "So that was kind of the concept."
The panels for the SABR conference hit on many of baseball's top analytical questions, from fielding metrics to the impact of pitch counts and rest on pitchers' performance. Many of the speakers are not affiliated with major league teams, and Gennaro isn't expecting the baseball executives to shine much light on the internal processes of their teams.
"I don't think the teams will be particularly open at all," Gennaro said. "So I think the reason most teams are coming is they're coming to peek in on what others are saying who are not on the team level."
About 19 major teams are expected to send at least one representative to the SABR conference, and Gennaro said the organization expects to sell about 300 badges in all. Since it's not a destination conference, people in attendance could wonder in and out of panels all weekend long.
A strong showing for the SABR conference, coupled with the success at MIT, could lead to more events focused on analytics in sports.
"This is very much still student-run, and the timing of it is really based on when the students can execute this and still not flunk everything," Morey said. "But it's already happened. Wharton and Stanford and Harvard have their own. We're really supportive of theirs. They're each filling a niche."
AP Sports Writer Chris Duncan in Houston contributed to this report.
MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: http://www.sloansportsconference.com/
Society for American Baseball Research: http://sabr.org/
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap