Preview of the 2015 SSAC Research Paper Competition

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has always been more of a sports business conference through the years, but since 2010 the conference has had tracks in which presentations on various topics in sports analytics have been presented.  This year the Research Paper competition returns to the SSAC, but this time with tracks for publications on Baseball, Basketball, Other Sports, and the Business of Sports.

The attention — and the amount of money — devoted to the conference continues to grow.  This year the authors of the best paper as selected by judges win $25,000, and as was the case last year there is a fan’s choice award as selected by readers of ESPN SportsNation.

ESPN The Magazine has vignettes of the eight research paper finalists.  You can also read the full papers on the SSAC site.

When I look through the papers and their authors, I find it telling that almost all of them have institutional support; they are either associated with a university or an industrial firm.  There is one author who is independent, but he has his own analytics consulting firm and serves as an adjunct professor.  The institutional support is important when you consider that about half of the papers make use of tracking data from SportsVU, Prozone, or other data companies.  Those data do not come cheaply to the typical independent researcher.  Furthermore, all of the finalists present work that is publishable quality in an archival journal like Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports or Journal of Sports Analytics.  It’s not work that can be carried out over a four- or six-week period.

I plan on listening to as many of the research paper presentations as possible, but I am particularly interested in two or three.  Patrick Lucey and his team at Disney Research have put together another paper that makes use of tracking data in soccer, this time to build a shot prediction model given field location, play time, and proximity of closest opposing player.  Any publication by Kirk Goldsberry is worth reading and listening to, and he, Luke Bornn, and their students at Harvard are presenting some fascinating work on alternative defensive metrics in basketball that make use of tracking data in the NBA.  Peter Fader of Wharton Business School wrote the book on marketing analytics, and he and his students have been working on dynamic pricing for Major League Baseball teams over the last two or three years.  I had found out about this project when I presented at Wharton a few years ago and I’m looking forward to learning more about it at the conference.

It should be an interesting and enlightening research paper session, and I’m looking forward to a great learning experience.