April 9, 2021

SSAC21 Day 1 Recap

We started off the first day of our (virtual) 15th Annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with a packed agenda. We got moving with two workout classes presented by CorePower Yoga to energize our audience. The audience was then welcomed by MIT Sloan School of Management’s Dean Schmittlein, SSAC Co-Founders Jessica Gelman and Daryl Morey, and SSAC Co-Leads Maggie Riddle and Lindsay Solotar, who emphasized the exciting year of ‘firsts’ we have had in sports analytics.

The morning began with The New Sports Fan: Innovation and Data (Valerie Camillo, Marie Donoghue, Jessica Gelman, Alison Overholt), discussing the ways in which their organizations are leveraging data and technology to drive rapid change and improvement in the fan experience. We then jumped into a packed agenda of panels, Competitive Advantage talks, career-focused events, and our DraftKings Sports Gaming Innovation Challenge. And, we would be remiss if we did not mention our brand new SSAC News Desk, live between panels. Neil Paine, Michele Steele, Seth Walder, and Sara Ziegler shared highlights and insights throughout the day, catching up with speakers between sessions and diving into some of the day’s most interesting discussions.

We were pleased to feature a special one on one conversation between New York City Mayoral Candidate Andrew Yang and FiveThirtyEight Founder Nate Silver. They discussed whether Yang was a Knicks or Nets fan, the role of analytics across politics, businesses and sports, and much more. As Yang put it, "Right now we have much better data on where to position a left fielder than we do on the efficacy of many multi-million dollar government programs." We hope to continue to drive the dialogue on sports and policy in the future.

We continued into the early afternoon with Super Glue: Investigating Basketball Culture vs. Analytics (Shane Battier, David Fizdale, Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski). “It’s the teams that are able to marry the psychological with the empirical that are going to win,” shared Battier during the conversation. This balance of art and science was a theme throughout this discussion.

Following our inaugural season of our podcast, Trash Talking Presented by Oracle, we were thrilled to welcome back all-star guests Sue Bird, Andrew Friedman, and Nate Silver to continue debunking myths of analytics in sports and looking at the future of sports analytics. Daryl and Jessica ran through a series of sports theories and hypotheticals with the panelists, such as, "What if after you made 10 three-pointers, they would only be worth 2 points?" This and many other thought-provoking scenarios were discussed, and of course the classic ‘Bench/Trade/ Franchise Tag’ was played by all.

We spent our afternoon looking at the power sports hold off the court during The Case for Activism: Sports’ Impact on Society, featuring Sue Bird and Stephen A. Smith, moderated by Jessica Gelman. We then concluded our first day with two incredible panels: When the Sports World Stopped & How It Came Back to Life: COVID and The Future of Sports with Jonathan Kraft, Dana White and Jackie MacMullen, and To Play or Not To Play: Rich Eisen 1-on-1 with J.J. Watt. Rich Eisen and J.J. Watt, first-time SSAC panelists, fit in nicely at Dorkapalooza, with J.J. commenting, "If you're going to be an analytics team, you have to be an analytics team 100% of the time.”

Finally, our competitive advantage presentations covered a wide variety of topics, including inclusion in sports, fan engagement during COVID, rating systems in racquet sports, what the ideal sports league looks like, and much more. We were thrilled to welcome back former SSAC Co-Leads Sam Ebb and Greg Kim to share their insights during their presentations.


  • "Right now we have much better data on where to position a left fielder than we do on the efficacy of many multi-million dollar government programs." - Andrew Yang, A Conversation with Andrew Yang and Nate Silver
  • “The mental health effects from the pandemic will be generational.” - Erika Nardini, Backdoor Cover: Revolutionizing Sports During COVID
  • “Roger (NFL Commissioner) came at this after watching Dana and the other leagues, and he told teams, we are going to play the full regular season. If you don't go in with the attitude that you will finish or complete something, you're always going to find an excuse not to.” - Jonathan Kraft, When the Sports World Stopped & How It Came Back to Life: COVID and The Future of Sports
  • “Being an ally is so important. The voices are louder. Women in sports have always been quick to lend that voice.” - Sue Bird, The Case for Activism: Sports' Impact on Society presented by Wasserman
  • "When college tracking data comes online it's going to be a watershed... When that happens, that's where the money is going to be." - Brian Burke, Say Goodbye to the 40 Yard Dash: The Future of NFL Roster Building 
  • "Do you want the numbers to validate what you already think as a coach? Or is the number the only answer for you? The truth is there if you have the patience to let both sides sing." - Zach Lowe, Super Glue: Investigating Basketball Culture vs. Analytics
  • "We have to develop a strategy for telling brand strategy for the next generation of fans. We have to innovate to provide an experience for fans that never step foot in a stadium." - Jason Wright, Leading Through Change and Transition
  • "It is very important in all of this chaos to have a game like chess where your effort affects your outcome and it provides some stability...We’ve created a world where you can win in a lot of different ways." - Jennifer Shahade, Beyond the Gambit: Chess' Big Move
  • "In my 18 years, I have seen two players whose play on the field plugged directly into the fans in the stands, I don’t know how to put analytics on this, but it’s Marshawn Lynch in Seattle and you in Houston.” - Rich Eisen, To Play or Not To Play: Rich Eisen 1-on-1 with J.J. Watt
  • “It's important to have your finger on the pulse of the marketplace and make sure you are reaching your fans. It should always be fan-first." - Stephanie McMahon, The Show Must Go On: Digitization of the Sports World


Please check out our most up to date schedule here. Day 2 panel highlights include Big Data Energy: How Marketing Technology and Analytics are Changing Sports as well as a conversation moderated by Nate Silver with Mark Cubin and Andy Slavitt. We’re also very much looking forward to Alternative Investing: Teams and SPACs with Josh Harris, John Collins, Billy Beane, and Jason Robins, which promises to be an interesting discussion about the future of sports as an alternative investment vehicle. After lunch, we can’t wait for Phillie Phanatics: How Teams Cultivate and Grow a Passionate Fanbase, where Daryl Morey and Lil Dicky will get into what exactly connects fans so deeply to their teams and what levers teams and fans can pull when engaging with one another. Later in the afternoon, our panel The Invisible Opponent: Our Mental Health Crisis also is sure to be a good one. Corbin Petro will lead a discussion of personal stories dealing with mental health and takeaways from their journey with Kevin Warren, Shane Battier, and TJ Manotoc. Finally, the day will conclude with a conversation between Alex Rodrigriuez and Michael Rubin moderated by Jessica Gelman discussing lessons learned from their experiences on the field and in the boardroom.

Tomorrow will also be jam packed with presentations of the latest cutting edge research and technology in the sports analytics industry. Be sure to tune into our research paper presentations, as well as the Hackathon, Startup Competition, and Don’t Get Defensive Finals.


Don’t forget to tag your tweets, Instagrams, and LinkedIn posts with #SSAC21 and #ShowMeTheData. Also, follow us @SloanSportsConf on Twitter and Instagram! We look forward to seeing your posts!