At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Jocks Are Becoming the Nerds

If you still think of MIT's annual sports analytics conference—or the athletic math revolution that spawned it—as Comic-Con for "Moneyball" dorks, you're mistaken.

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Mar 8 2017, 8:10pm

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

As a basketball writer and self-proclaimed stats geek, I've heard every complaint about the Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference, the annual Comic-Con-meets-Moneyball jamboree held at MIT. It's an event full of, well, nerds. The panels and discussions are stale, because no team wants to give away any of their useful trade secrets. The attendees are a bunch of walking, talking resumes, trying hard to stand out and get hired for front-office jobs.

Naturally, then, I arrived at the conference fearing the worst: that I'd be thrown into a crowd of overly eager, suit-wearing stat heads trying to push their business cards inside my pockets, all while sitting through boring discussions that merely scratched the surface of what makes sports truly interesting.

Read More: "Sports Betting Is Inevitable": Inside the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Thankfully, Sloan delivered. Sure, there were plenty of card-waving grad students eager to tell their stories, and more than a few panels that I walked out on after a few minutes of listening, but there also were plenty of fascinating, insightful discussions to be found inside the Hynes Convention Center. Sloan wasn't a second-class geek ghetto. It was a very well-planned and organized event that is quickly becoming the most important gathering of the year, not only for analytics but for learning about what lies ahead for professional sports in general.

A look at the future

The conference itself is a sort of meeting of the minds about the growing influence of data and technology on every aspect of the sports industry. The ways that advanced statistical research has changed how teams play, practice, coach, and build their rosters has been well publicized, but statistics and technology also are influencing how fans watch, talk about, and enjoy their favorite teams, from increased interest in data-driven journalism to virtual reality.

The ubiquity and availability of statistics means many more capable people can now produce new insights into strategy, or marketing, or player development. A rocket scientist might not be able to tell an NBA coach how to best utilize a particular undersized power forward, but he or she might be able to develop an algorithm that helps identify what types of plays a team runs, just by using publicly available data on NBA.com.

In fact, this was the exact goal of one impressive research paper that was presented on the first day of the conference. An unfathomable amount of raw data taken from video footage on NBA.com was placed through a machine learning algorithm; with the aid of some absurdly complicated math, it was able to determine when the San Antonio Spurs ran a "Hammer" set or when the Golden State Warriors ran a "Dribble Weave." Welcome to the future! Currently, teams employ scouts and assistant coaches who manually track these types of things every game. Doing so requires a lot of slow, painstaking work. Offloading some of that to software that can automatically sort every type of basketball action would save time, and open up an entirely new data set for coaches—and possibly fans—to work with.

How did Danny Green get such a clean look? Someday soon, there may be an app for that. Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA at the forefront

It shouldn't be surprising that the NBA has such a large presence at a conference about the future of technology. No league is as forward-thinking and progressive, and no league commissioner embodies those qualities more than Adam Silver. Silver took the stage for an hour to take questions from fivethirtyeight.com's Nate Silver about the direction of the league, technology, and the intersection between the two. The exchange produced some headlines, like how Silver received a phone call from Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul about reforming the All-Star Game in order to make it more competitive. But there were also plenty of subtle, non-flashy insights about the league's relationship with big data and technology that likely will have far more impact in years to come, including possible European expansion and how teams may alter their roster-building strategies to accommodate the longer, more spread-out NBA schedule that will begin next season.

NBA senior vice-president of digital media Melissa Brenner spoke about the slow adoption of virtual reality as a consumer technology, and how the league is cautiously optimistic that it will become a larger part of the fan experience over time. She also shared how making VR a "social" experience will be one of the biggest challenges that the league faces, since that is so much of what makes fandom fun and worthwhile.

Of course, the NBA wasn't the only professional sports league represented at Sloan. The NFL, MLB, and the NHL all had several representatives participating in panels and attending events. Niche sports like pro wrestling, marathon running, and the biggest newcomer, esports, also had a presence. Esports had a particularly strong footprint and may be the largest emerging sports market. It's not a coincidence that the conference held a Super Smash Bros. pro-am, in which the winner of a morning tournament earned a chance to take on some of the world's best at the popular fighting game.

The jocks are now the nerds

One of my personal conference highlights was meeting and speaking with John Drazan, one of the research paper competition's winning authors. He and three of his colleagues researched and wrote about how sports analytics can be used to "broaden the application of math and statistics for youth, by teaching students to gather and analyze data directly linked to their own basketball performance." Compared to other papers that were presented, this one was quite simple. Drazan and his team developed an app that allowed middle-school and high-school students to track their shooting performance and helped them calculate basic stats like field-goal percentage. The project was a huge success and the team believes it can have incredible applications for professional sports teams and their community outreach and youth sports programs.

What makes this idea particularly interesting to me—and why I think it was emblematic of the conference as a whole—is how it functions as a response to the knee-jerk anti-intellectualism that often bubbles up when discussing sports analytics. The unofficial spokesperson for this movement, TNT's Charles Barkley, once said, "All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common. They're a bunch of guys who ain't never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game."

The idea that anyone who studies math is a nerd who can't play sports—or find romance—is exactly the type of ignorance that Drazen and his team were fighting against at the middle-school level. And looking at the bigger picture beyond sports, the battle to make math and statistics interesting to kids is one that seems increasingly important. After all, we are part of a knowledge economy, and American students in 2016 ranked just 35th worldwide in math aptitude, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment.

Fortunately, the triumph of analytics, and Sloan's growing popularity, show that the nerds are winning. In fact, the jocks are becoming the nerds. That's how FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron put it during his panel, "What's Next for Baseball Analytics." Earlier this year, former NBA player Shane Battier was hired by the Miami Heat as Director of Basketball Development and Analytics. His experience as a player and as a user of analytics makes him uniquely qualified to analyze stats and how they can help a basketball team; in time, his hiring may be seen as a watershed moment.

When Charles Barkley is the grumpy past, and you're the glowing future. Photo by Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Longtime NBA power forward Luis Scola, who was waived by the Brooklyn Nets on February 27, also attended the conference. "I always wanted to come, so I had the opportunity, I had the time, so I came," he told VICE Sports. Scola participated in a few panels and was also an eager attendee of the many speeches, presentations, and demonstrations throughout the weekend. "I like to try to figure out how the game is going to evolve, how is it evolving already, and where is it going to end," he said, adding that he is considering future front office work and that analytics would be a part of it. "I think it is very related to what we heard all these two days here. These are very smart people trying to figure out how to impact the game, how the game is going to change, and how to get ahead of the change."

I came to Boston thinking that I would find something very specific. In reality, the conference already is fairly diverse, like several mini-events taking place at the same time—all of them a chance for smart, sports-loving people to share ideas and look forward. There's still a stigma around sports analytics, but increasingly that belongs to the past. Sloan looks like the future.

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