Spoke with Mark Cuban, Nate Silver, Daryl Morey and more. It was a good day.
How did I manage to talk to these legends in sports analytics? I attended the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Affectionately dubbed “Dorkapalooza” by the great Bill Simmons, the mass of 2700 analytical-minded professionals, students and media taking over the Boston Convention Center is the best look into sports for anyone interested in breaking into the industry.
The conference, founded by Daryl Morey and Jessica Gelman, occurs over two days and consists of panels of industry professionals, research paper presentations, a trade show and enormous networking potential. To give you an idea of who attends, I counted 189 representatives from ESPN alone, along with reps from over 70 pro sports teams. Here are the highlights:
Making Analytics Actionable
A major focus of the conference was the theme of judging a decision on the process, not the outcome. If you flip one coin that lands on heads 7 out of 10 times and another coin that lands on heads 3 out of 10 times, the first coin does not have better odds at getting heads on the next flip. It’s still a two-sided coin and it was simply luck – a difficult concept to grasp in skill-based areas, but incredibly important in decision making.
It is also very important that no matter how advanced your analysis is, at the end of the day you have to be able to communicate it in a way decision-makers can understand – data visualization can be a key tool here. People do not instinctively get numbers and probability. They react more favorably to pictures and stories. Teams don’t do analytics for fun. They do it to produce wins. If that requires players buying into the system, it could be better to produce a good analysis with excellent communication rather than an amazing analysis that does not produce action.
Finally, it is important to foster an organizational culture of thinking analytically and constantly questioning the status quo and questioning the conclusions that the data produce, asking why the data showed up the way they did, and how to apply the data to decision making. Naturally, people are usually more concerned about keeping their jobs than performing well. To prevent counterproductive behavior, it is important to build an organization with people that trust the process.
While the panels and paper presentations are informative and entertaining, the best part of the conference was during breaks where wandering about and speaking with someone incredibly interesting was commonplace. It’s unbelievable how open people are, even well-known figures like the writers of Grantland, all of whom conversed with genuine enthusiasm for a student with similar interests.
Mark Cuban and the quote of the conference
I walked up to him and asked how he balances his image of being “the man” with his analytical thinking. Answer: “I just don’t give a f—.”
I hope to see you there when I’m back again next year.
Georgetown University Class of 2016