The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is the baby of Daryl Morey (Rockets GM) and Jessica Gelman (Gillette marketing executive). As the story goes, Morey wanted to start the conference after taking the Rockets job because he could no longer lecture back in Cambridge. “This is Daryl’s class,” Moneyball author Michael Lewis said.
Morey is a Sloan alum. Although the conference is held across the Charles River in Boston, this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference started the way us non-Ivy-Leaguers assume most conversations in Cambridge start. That is, with an MIT/Harvard joke. Morey jabbing at Gelman, a Harvard alum, that the Crimson aren’t much known for quantitative competencies.
From there the weekend stayed highbrow. It is after all Dorkapalooza, per Bill Simmons.
Oddly, this year’s conference didn’t open with one blockbuster panel. Last year’s sole opener was a panel headlined by Malcolm Gladwell. Although 2013 opened with multiple panels, there was one which was clearly the “big show” of the bunch. It was aptly titled “Revenge of the Nerds,” and had a truly stellar cast of characters. Moderated by Michael Lewis, the panel included Mark Cuban (Mavs owner and perennial Sloan Conference attendee), Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight), Paraag Marathe (49ers COO) and Daryl Morey.
This is the kind of panels this conference has repeatedly put together. The men joining the conference c0-chair were some of the most celebrated of the year. Lewis’ book was made into a blockbuster movie. Cuban, after winning the NBA title the previous year, joined a primetime ABC show called Shark Tank. Nate Silver was easily the most talked about blogger (and statistician) in 2013. And Paraag’s Niners came within yards of winning an NFL title.
What ended up being the main theme of the conference first surfaced here. Mentioned over and over was the challenge that those involved in analytics face when trying to get their message across to the traditional decision makers and influencers — general managers, coaches, players, etc.
Another interesting addition to the conference was Bob Haralabos. Haralabos is the most well known NBA gambler today. Haralabos talked at length about the gambler and bookmaker relationship. Or lack there of. There was a classic confrontation between Haralabas and the Sportsbook Director at Cantor Gaming, Matthew Holt. It all boiled over when Haralabas brought up Holt’s comment from last year’s conference that they would take “any bet” from any player. When asked what bet Cantor would take from Harabalos gleefully responded, “Ten thousand.” He then went on to essentially egg Holt on to lift that limit. That said, regardless of your opinion on him, Haralabos proves that william hill bookmakers aren’t the only ones making money in the gambling business.
Another underlying theme was writing. Or at least it felt that way to me. So many of the great minds in analytics have written about their sports. Of course, this idea starts with Bill James. In the opening panel alone, Lewis and Silver’s respective pens have as much firepower as any two men over the past several years. Then there are the cases like Dean Olive. Oliver is currently the Director of Production Analytics, ESPN Stats & Information. It’s a role that seems to be getting more and more influence in Bristol. You see the analytics becoming more prominent in the programming and publishing. Before Oliver was officially in the hoops world, yes, he was an academic writer and also wrote “Basketball on Paper.” Simply put, he’s a writer, too. Maybe it’s just me missing daily writing, but along with celebrating numbers, this past weekend turned into a celebration of words.
Whatever the case may be, the written word is clearly alive and well.