The Future of Sports Is Being Decided in Boston Right Now

The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is changing the game. Literally.

Sports analytics (and Brad Pitt) took center stage in the 2011 film Moneyball.
Sports analytics (and Brad Pitt) took center stage in the 2011 film Moneyball. –AP

Are you a self-described sports nerd who knows what WAR is good for? The kind of fan who understands that probability applies to offensive strategy as much as it did to your 10th grade math homework?

Then you probably know a thing or two about the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

If, however, you’re a fan who goes to your team’s duck boat parade without taking into account the complex thinking that got them there, the letters SSAC mean very little. Here is why they matter.

What are sports analytics?

Put broadly, sports analytics is the systematic analysis of the varied and deep data sets that athletes, teams, coaches, leagues, and even fans generate.

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Deep data dives can lead to insights that can potentially optimize game-time decisions by coaches, expose inefficiencies in athlete’s actions, identify training methods that can lower the risk of injury, and allow franchises to better understand fans’ spending behavior in real time and over extended periods.

For a more in-depth explanation and other examples, check out this paper by Babson College professor Thomas H. Davenport.

So…what is the SSAC?

In the words of SSAC founder and Kraft Sports Group Executive Jessica Gelman, “There is a ton going on’’ at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, held yearly in Boston. Spread over two days in February 2015, the conference features 25 different panel discussions, 8 research paper presentations, 14 talks by invited speakers, a startup competition, a trade show, and a data visualization room.

Gelman founded the conference with Daryl Morey, who’s now General Manager of the Houston Rockets, at MIT’s Sloan School of Business in 2007. The SSAC perfectly encapsulates Boston—it’s a two-day event devoted to sports, technological innovation, data analysis, community, and business.

“The roots of the conference generated out of a class that Daryl and I were teaching at MIT Sloan,’’ said Gelman. The conference was first held in MIT’s classrooms, and then as interest grew, it moved off campus to bigger venues.

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This year, the SSAC is being held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and it’s drawing many of the biggest names in sports management and journalism. But the real stars of the show are the brainiacs—be they academics or people who crunch numbers for media companies or think tanks—who are at the forefront of sports analytics and technology.

These are the people who are deciding the future of sports.

Who goes to the SSAC, anyway?

Basically everyone who matters in sports. “This is the first time we’ve ever had three commissioners,’’ said Gelman. “Don Garber, who’s the commissioner of Major League Soccer, Rob Manfred, the new MLB commissioner, and Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, will all be there.’’ Silver, Gelman added, has been coming since the beginning.

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So have many others. ESPN’s Bill Simmons is a notorious SSAC fanboy, author Malcolm Gladwell often attends, and sports luminaries such as Bill James, Nate Silver, and Phil Jackson often attend. Many other famous and successful figures in sports analysis, journalism, and athletics are also regulars.

This year, Boston teams are particularly well represented. “The Patriots and Revolution’s Jonathan Kraft, Sam Kennedy from the Red Sox, Amy Latimer, who’s the President of the TD Garden, and the Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck and co-owner Steve Pagliuca will all be there,’’ Gelman said.

In addition to the head honchos, non-industry people can also go to the conference—albeit for a steep fee of $600. The first SSAC drew 175 people; in 2013, 2200 attended. Tickets sell out months in advance.

Why should you care about the SSAC?

Because the SSAC determines how you’ll watch sports, how you’ll think about sports, and even how your favorite teams will try to win.

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While analytics used to feel almost secretive, picking apart and deeply understanding data is now openly talked about and understood as an essential aspect of any industry.

“I wouldn’t say data analysis is specific to sports; the use of data is prevalent across all industries at this point,’’ said Gelman. “But sports is something that people can relate to, and that’s why there’s so much interest.’’

Sports analytics is far-reaching enough that Silver, who made his name analyzing baseball, could segue to forecasting presidential elections, and eventually command his own blog for The New York Times and then ESPN, while also acting as special correspondent for ABC News.

And then there’s Moneyball, book by Michael Lewis about the quantitative analysis used by Oakland Athletics’s general manager Billy Beane to create a contending MLB team on a relatively small budget. The chronicle of the team’s success in the early 2000s was made into a movie with Brad Pitt playing the lead. Brad Pitt! In a movie about nerdy sports math!

When it comes to how data analysis changes the way games are actually played, look no further than SSAC co-founder Daryl Morey. He used to be the Senior Vice President of Operations for the Celtics, where he used hiring methods similar to those employed by the Oakland team profiled in Lewis’s book.

Under his watch, the Rockets affiliate in the NBA Developmental League is executing an offensive strategy that focuses on close-range shots and three-pointers.

Kirk Goldsberry, writing for Grantland, explained this bold strategy: “Based on the numbers . . . the smartest offensive strategy would be to forsake these spots and shoot only threes and shots near the basket.’’ Goldsberry is also a speaker at this year’s conference.

Presentations at the conference will come to change the way fans watch, bet on, and go to sports games, if the schedule is any indication. Panels at the 2015 SSAC include: “If You Build It, They Will Come: Designing the Stadium of the Future,’’ “Sharing, Liking, Streaming: The Future of Sports and Media,’’ and “Book It: Legalizing Sports Betting.’’

And then there’s the startup competition, where companies looking to improve all aspects of the industry vie for funding.

“Last year a data scientist at Facebook attended; her passion was the blog she was writing on sports analytics,’’ Gelman said. “I encouraged her to pursue that passion, and she wrote me an email about a week ago to tell me she’s one of the people in this year’s startup competition.’’

Who knows? Maybe that one woman’s startup will one day revolutionize the way we throw footballs. And we’ll have the SSAC to thank.

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