2015 SSAC Soccer Analytics Panel Preview: Grounds for Optimism

Later this week, I will attend my fifth MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which encompasses the transition of the conference from a one-day meeting of academics and sport insiders to a two-day cultural event on sports analytics and sports business.   I have attended all of the conferences in which there was a dedicated panel discussion on soccer analytics, and my impressions of the panels have progressed from elation, to disappointment, to thinly veiled contempt.  In fact, I wrote last year that if future Soccer Analytics panels were more of the same, I wouldn’t bother attending.

After having seen the participants for this year’s Soccer Analytics panel, I believe that there might be some reason to be hopeful for a better discussion than previous years.

As in previous years, there are representatives from clubs and the data companies, but in contrast to last year, there are two panelists who are very well-known in the soccer analytics blogosphere – Ravi Ramineni and Chris Anderson.  Ravi was a computer scientist and blogger on data analysis and visualization in football who has since become a performance analyst and sports scientist with Seattle Sounders FC.  Chris is a political economist at Cornell and London School of Economics who is known for his Soccer By The Numbers site and his (and David Sally’s) best-selling book The Numbers Game which has brought statistical analysis of soccer to a broader audience.

There are overseas-based panelists as in previous years, but for the first time a participant is not from the UK.  Michael Niemeyer is the head of match analysis for Bayern Munich who has also worked with the German Football Association and TU Munich (the main polytechnic university in Munich) on various topics related to performance analysis.  Angus McNab represents Opta Sports and PERFORM Group in North America and has some perspectives on the data company’s use in the media as well as domestic leagues and national federations.

Leading the panel discussions will be Andrew Wiebe, who is head of New Media Content at Major League Soccer’s website and also the main host of MLS ExtraTime Radio on SiriusXM.  I know that New Media Content has very close ties to Opta and their analysts — the offices are literally across the street from each other in NYC! — so I would like to believe that Andrew would know what kinds of questions to ask in order to elicit a lively discussion.

If you read the description of this year’s session on the SSAC site, it’s clear that the session is setting a high bar for itself.  Will there really be discussion on innovations in physiological data to better manage players and analytical tools for pre-match preparation and in-match analysis and adjustment?  Will we have discussion on which approach is more credible, or even the challenges associated with these approaches?  How substantive will the conversations be?  Past Soccer Analytics panels have been let-downs, but maybe, just maybe, this year’s panel provides some grounds to be cautiously optimistic about the discussion.  We’ll find out Friday at 11:40am EST.