Of course, there was more going on at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference than a Soccer Analysts panel, and I will write about the other major events in this post.
The level of interest in the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has grown exponentially since the days when it was hosted in a lecture hall at MIT’s Sloan business school. For the last two years, the conference has been hosted at the Massachusetts Convention and Exhibition Center, which is an enormous facility near Boston Harbor and Logan Airport. This year the conference moved yet again, this time to the Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Hynes is actually smaller than the MCEC, but its location in central Boston enables more social events to take place at the surrounding bars and restaurants. And of course, it snowed for the first time since I attended the conference. I knew that three years of mild weather in early March were too much to hope for.
One of those social events was the Soccer Analysts drinkup the night before the conference. Last year there were six people gathered around a table to talk soccer. This year there were about 30 people gathered around the tables in the rear of the McGreevey’s pub. I enjoyed the conversation with several of the people there, yet somehow I missed the chance to talk to Alexi Lalas who was standing at the table adjacent to mine!
The SSAC started with a discussion on the Evolution of Sports Leagues, moderated by Michael Wilbon and featuring Gary Bettman (NHL commisioner), Scott Boras (baseball super-agent), Rob Manfred (VP of Human/Labor Relations, MLB), Steve Tisch (Chairman & Exec VP, New York Giants), and Adam Silver (Deputy Commissioner, NBA). All of the leagues have dealt with significant labor issues within the last six years, so there was a lot of discussion on that topic and how analytics were used in the league office to aid in decision-making. The panel also discussed issues of drug enforcement and broadcast rights, and finally moved on to the internationalization of their respective sports leagues. And it was here that the North American/Big Four makeup of the panel limited the quality of the discussion.
The panelists discussed the opening of league offices in Europe or Asia, foreign leagues affiliated with the US pro leagues, even exhibition or league matches abroad. But why not have someone like FA Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, whose league is the richest soccer league in the world in terms of TV revenue? It has scheduled matches in order to maximize viewership in Asia and discussed very seriously having league matches staged abroad? Why not have on the stage a CEO likeAndrew Demetriou of the Australian Football League, which has the third-highest attendance of a domestic professional sports league in the world? The AFL has completed the transition from a regional to a truly national sports league, recently signed a multi-billion dollar broadcasting deal, is negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with its players, and has endeavored to spread its game throughout the Pacific Rim and other select countries (e.g. Ireland). Yes, I am aware that David Gill was on another panel at the conference, but the organizers should have invited — not to mention known about — someone like Scudamore or Demetriou.
I didn’t attend most of the sessions in their entirety, but I walked around the conference area to check out the other attractions. There was an exhibitors’ row comprised of startup companies in various segments of the sports industry — from team/player analytics to fantasy markets to medical and psychological monitoring. Representatives of those companies gave four-minute pitches of their business followed by Q&A, which was kind of like a sports-related Startup Riot. It would have been great if the pitch competition was open to any startup company who wanted to present but couldn’t afford the booth fees. The research paper competition and Evolution of Sport session returned for another year, and there were posters of the finalists and semifinalists on display. There was even a game room with a basketball shooting game, a virtual golf game, air hockey tables, and some comfortable chairs and tables to watch the ballroom sessions.
ESPN had a very heavy presence at the conference — I joked with a representative that it seemed that company operations relocated itself from Bristol to Boston for the weekend. One of their analytics-related shows, Numbers Never Lie, was broadcast from the conference floor, and it seemed that every panel had at least one ESPN employee. ESPN Magazine had a special analytics issue. So it’s clear that ESPN provide a lot of financial and logistical assistance to the conference.
The first day of the conference ended with an interview of Bill James by ESPN’s Bill Simmons. The last time James was at the conference was in the days when it was still at MIT Sloan, so it hadn’t “blown up” then. It was a wide-ranging discussion about his role in bringing about modern statistical analysis in sport, as well as his writings on famous crimes. Just about everything he said was good, but the pull quote from the interview was that the massive response to this conference “is the culmination of 30 years of work.” Very much so. Afterwards, I took advantage of a passing James to shake his hand and thank him for inspiring me on my new career. James is a giant of a man — he must be at least 6’8″, and I’m quite tall myself! — but a gentleman giant, and very gracious.
Well, this post is way too long, so I’ll stop here and write separately about my thoughts on the sessions that I did attend, albeit partially.