Pushing the Analytics Conversation Forward at this Year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Mark Nerenberg, VP of Game Operations and Development at DraftKings

Despite starting my career in fantasy sports more than eight years ago, 2018 was the first time I was finally able to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and it did not disappoint. Onsite, I was able to meet and listen to some of the most promising and greatest minds in sports. From league commissioners, GMs and entrepreneurs, to former President of the United States, Barack Obama, each discussed the universal yet vastly different applications of data. Here are a few things I took away from attending SSAC:

While data and analytics can boost an athlete’s performance, it does not always tell the full story: As much as I love math and numbers, I am a bigger sports fan and pro athletes CJ Anderson and Chris Capuano reminded me why. They shared examples of how data and analytics have helped them become smarter and more efficient players and as technology continues to evolve, there will be even more opportunities for them to learn and improve. They reminded us, however, that there are certain things about sports and competition – ironically the things that attract us to sports in the first place – that are often overlooked and cannot be truly measured in numbers: passion, work ethic, and teamwork. If GMs and coaches only look at the data and see too many missed tackles or missed threes, the athlete risks being cut or traded. We as fans are not inside the helmet nor on the field with the player, so where and how do we draw the line between analytics and emotion? This panel made me think of data in a whole new way and I think this topic will be a continuous conversation going forward.

Don’t be afraid to fail: The panel that had me thinking the most was the conversation amongst Nate Silver, Alex Rodriguez, Maverick Carter and DraftKings’ CEO, Jason Robins. They all agreed that as entrepreneurs, you cannot be afraid to fail and that you need to adjust or iterate to learn from both failures and successes. The members of the panel went on to explain that what works once might not work again. I think understanding this concept, and striving to understand why something worked one time but not another, as well as the differences between seemingly similar situations, is what separates good from great decision-makers. But how can this be more practically applied? In my role, at what point should I launch a new product even if I feel it could still use some improvement? Doesn’t failing come at a cost? What if I lose my credibility with my colleagues or worse, our customers? Willingness to fail and challenging common thinking are strong traits of leaders and as a leader at DraftKings, I must positively impact the culture to ensure people are not afraid to fail.

You cannot make decisions based on data alone: Across multiple panels, a number of speakers clarified that data cannot drive decisions in a vacuum, and that critical thinking must be applied to integrating data. As Jalen Rose noted on the Basketball Analytics panel, “analytics is a tool, but it’s not the toolbox.” Whether you’re running a business, a team, a company or just starting to develop a marketing plan, it’s most important to surround yourself with diversity of thought and people who will challenge you on different ways to look at, and apply the data. You cannot decide based on data alone. All of these factors are needed in order to make a decision.

It’s clear that the data and technology landscape is constantly evolving and redefining how we as members of the sports industry achieve our goals. In reflecting after this year’s conference, I can say I’ve never been more excited to see what’s next for this industry.