Previewing the 2016 MIT SSAC Research Paper Competition

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has become 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 competition is in two phases: the first phase whittles down the field on the basis of research abstracts submitted, and the survivors are invited to submit full papers that are reviewed by the SSAC panel.  The eight semifinalists present their papers in the Research Paper session on Friday, and three finalists get the chance to do it again on Saturday.  The winning submission receives at least USD 10000 and a guest column on ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight website.

This year there are papers on basketball (3), sports finance (2), baseball (1), tennis (1), and — for the third year in a row — soccer (1).  This year’s soccer article is by Luke Bornn (Simon Fraser University) and Iavor Bojinov (Harvard University) on the development of spatial statistical maps to describe defensive disruptions.  This research is part of the ongoing work on the application of spatial statistics to sport that Bornn and Kirk Goldsberry have done to wide acclaim at the conference and the sports world at large.  Another paper that applies spatial modeling to sport is “The Thin Edge of the Wedge” by a group of Australian tennis researchers joined by Patrick Lucey who is with a major data company.  The paper presents a framework for understanding the style of playmaking of elite tennis players and the changes in those styles as the context of the match changes.  I would keep an eye on this work as it could be applied to other sports where spatial relationships are important, such as basketball and the football codes.

I’m always interested in checking out papers from other fields to see if there are any research or analysis patterns that can be replicated.  To that end I’m particularly interested in a paper by Dr Jonathan Jensen that presents a survival analysis of sponsorship contracts for sport organizations, but more for the use of survival analysis than the findings on expected lifetime value of sponsorships (although that is interesting to consider).  From the basketball papers, I am probably more interested in learning more about the paper on deducing complementary skill sets of NBA players and constructing best lineups with that knowledge.  I wonder if the GM of the Houston Rockets will sit in on the presentation with interest.

There are also poster presentations at the conference.  I will write more about that, but I have the matter of a Soccer Analytics Meetup to get ready for.