“From Ripple to Revolution,” co-chair Daryl Morey began in echoing the theme of the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “Things start small, and using analytics, eventually become a necessary part of competing.” Morey’s panel with some of the great innovators in sports – Bill James and Nate Silver– kicked off a conference which has become the fabric of the sports analytics revolution. In 2014, 2000+ attendees representing 300+ teams, leagues and sports-related organizations descended on Boston to hear the latest in the development and use of sports analytics.
Expanding far beyond the attendees at the Hynes Convention Center, the conference trended on Twitter as high as third throughout the US, with conference attendees relaying quotes and insights to a broad online audience, while hundreds followed panel live-streams on YouTube. Eight years into the conference’s history, nearly every aspect of the sports industry has been impacted by the data revolution. Once again co-chaired by Jessica Gelman and Morey, the 2014 version featured 25 panels, 27 presentations, and 100+ speakers. Innovation in sports analytics remained a primary focus, with over 300 entries in the research paper competition and a series of Evolution of Sports talks by analytics thought-leaders. The role of analytics on the business side of the industry also increased in prominence, with an expanded Competitive Advantage series highlighting the growing role of data in managerial decision-making.
The heart of the conference remained the panels featuring pre-eminent analytic and industry leaders. The talk of the first day centered around its culmination, the “Building a Dynasty” panel in which Jonathan Kraft talked with Jackie MacMullan about the Patriots’ run in the 2000s and Phil Jackson discussed how he led the Bulls and Lakers to 11 NBA Championships.
In other Day 1 highlights, panelists discussed the increasing use of analytics on the field, in the front office, and in the boardroom, including entrepreneurs sharing their stories in “Starting a Sports Business,” featuring founder-CEOs Kevin Plank of Under Armour, Michael Rubin of Fanatics and Casey Wasserman of his eponymous sports marketing and talent agency.
This set the stage for a fast-paced Day 2, when a massive crowd filled the main ballroom to watch Malcolm Gladwell engage new NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a heated one-on-one that had the basketball world talking. There was a major splash on the diamond as well with MLB Advanced Media using the SSAC stage to roll out its defensive tracking technology that will fundamentally change the way baseball players are evaluated.
While league luminaries, front-office decision-makers and industry leaders spoke about how they are employing analytics in decision-making on the panel stage, the next major advances in sports analytics were shared through research papers, Competitive Advantage presentations, Evolution of Sport talks, Tradeshow competition and the First Pitch MBA case competition. Second Spectrum Inc. won best research paper for the second time in the conference’s history based on defining basketball’s rebounding statistic into three separate quantifiable skills. Peter Carr won the EoS competition for his work on “Broadcasting Live Sports Automatically Using Robotic Cameras.” Swingbyte, Inc. was judged to be the top presenter at the startup trade show, marketing a product that gives golfers real-time swing analysis on their phones. The team from the University of Wisconsin School of Business captured Aramark’s First Pitch MBA case competition on the analytics of the fan experience, and best transaction was awarded to the three-team trade between the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Chicago White Sox. New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was given the Lifetime Achievement Alpha Award for his career in baseball, including his role on the forefront of applying sabermetrics in the front office while GM of the Athletics and mentor to Billy Beane and his subsequent tenures as GM of the San Diego Padres and New York Mets. The conference continued to be a hotbed for recruiting and hiring within the industry. The introduction of a resume review session, “Career Conversations” between students and business leaders, and a panel on breaking into the sports world highlighted the opportunities and interest of the next generation of sports professionals who will carry forward the revolution.