Tuesday, March 10, 2009

2009 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

On Saturday, I attended the 2009 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. After learning about the conference a few weeks back from new pal David Pinto over at Baseball Musings, I thought it would be a good time.. and of course, it was.

MIT alum and Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey hosted the festivities. The day consisted of numerous panel discussions and Q&A's.


The first panel - Careers in Sports - began at 7:45am and was headlined by Chris "Buzzkill" Wallace, the GM of the Memphis Grizzlies. Not only is he impolite (he did not get up to greet a woman; instead, he stayed in his seat and made her awkwardly hug him), but he's also a buzzkill. After his four co-panelists rambled on for about 15 minutes about the bright prospects of obtaining a job in sports even in these dismal times, Wallace chimed in by saying how few jobs actually exist in sports.

I thought to myself, not only does this guy kill the hopes of the franchises he runs, he also makes sure everyone stays pessimistic. Way to get the day off on the right foot...or not.


The next panel - Evolution of the Fan Experience - was headlined by Bill Simmons ("The Sports Guy"), Jeff Van Gundy (former NBA head coach), and Brian Burke (GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs).

Playing the role of the typical fan, Simmons sounded way too whiny for my liking.

Van Gundy, who arrived with Diet Coke in hand at 8:30am, behaved exactly like he does on TV. He said all of the camaraderie between opposing players before NBA games made him "want to puke." He also criticized the NBA for scheduling a team to play at home on the second night of a back-to-back. Interesting.

The highlight of this panel, to the surprise of most, was Brian Burke. I knew very little about Burke coming in but came away very impressed. To get things started, a slightly disheveled-looking Burke said community service was a moral responsibility and "not a choice" on his teams. In fact, those who refuse to participate in volunteer work are either immediately sent to the minors or traded to a "place their families will hate." Needless to say, he gets very little resistance.

Burke, an incredibly eloquent former lawyer from the Boston area, called himself a "hockey junkie." Anytime he sees a rink, he pulls over to watch even if it's only eight-year olds.

He also considered and supported the idea of shortening the NHL season.

Burke also made it clear that he loves the physicality of hockey and reminded us that his teams always lead the league in fighting except this year. Of course, Burke did not build the Leafs' roster as he only took over the team four months ago, but he promised to "address this over the summer." He had the place in stitches.


The next panel on the docket, and the main reason I chose to attend, was Baseball Analytics.

The Panel:

Shiraz Rehman - Director of Baseball Operations, Arizona Diamondbacks
Tim Purpura - Executive Vice President and COO, Minor League Baseball
Christina Kahrl - Co-Founder & Managing Editor, Baseball Prospectus
David Pinto - Owner and Author, Baseball Musings
John Dewan - Owner, Baseball Info Solutions

An impressive panel that did not disappoint when discussing such topics as quantifying defense, using the shift, and BATS. If you want more details, you should have attended the conference.

I will say that I came away very impressed with Christina Kahrl, an extremely knowledgeable individual.


After lunch came Basketball Analytics headlined by Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Cuban, as expected, was outspoken and was the only panelist that provided any valuable insight. He defended his Devin Harris-Jason Kidd deal as well as his valuation metrics.

The only thing of note that came out of this for me was the realization that developing metrics for basketball will be an incredible challenge. In baseball, a player can accumulate 700 at bats in a season or throw 3500 pitches. breaking these events into numbers proves to be fairly useful. However, in basketball, there are so many variables that come into play that quantifying the contributions of individuals in a team game is quite difficult.


Boston Celtics SG Ray Allen participated in the last panel of the day - Value of Icon Players. Allen, a humble, well-spoken individual made the crowd laugh on several occasions with his witty humor. He seemed like a genuinely likable iconic figure.


Throughout the day I met some noteworthy people and learned some interesting things.

--I spoke with Kevin Pritchard, GM of the Portland Trail Blazers, who seemed well-prepared with a laminated agenda and a binder full of notes. Very nice guy as well.

--The NCAA generates more advertising revenue from the 63 games of the NCAA Basketball Tournament than the NBA does in a full season of 1200 games. Still think the NCAA Football Playoffs are a bad idea?

--I realized there are very few rivalries in sports these days. My thought is that this arises because of parity. It takes a number of heated playoff series to form a rivalry. These days, it's a huge challenge to even get to the playoffs in the major sports. Facing the same team is almost unheard of.

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