Review of 2012 Sports Analytics Innovation Summit

We’ve been quiet because of Demo Day presentations in Atlanta, New York City, and San Francisco over the past two weeks, but while I was in San Francisco last week I took part in the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit that was held in Union Square.

The Summit was a two-day conference scheduled by Innovation Enterprise Ltd., a British company that provides short courses and themed conferences on data analytics and its applications, and attended by about 100 people involved with sports analytics in some capacity.  Most of the attendees represented professional sports teams and leagues in North America, as well as technology companies that serve those teams and leagues, but there were also more than a few academics and reporters (as well as some students from universities in the Bay Area).  The conference was an opportunity to meet some well-known figures in the sport analytics world in a smaller setting.  Very few people from professional soccer were represented at the conference, three in fact: Jeff Agoos (head of Technical Committee at MLS), JoAnn Neale ( Exec VP of HR, MLS), and myself.

Demo Day fell on the first day of the conference, so I only saw part of one session which was on the use of analytics to engage sports fans and customers.  There were talks by representatives of ESPN The Magazine and the Bleacher Report that presented work on metrics to express the value that teams deliver to fans (ESPN’s Ultimate Standings) and determine what readers want to see and on which platform (Bleacher Report).  Alicia Rankin, head of the NFL’s Research division, delivered the final talk of the session on the NFL’s use of data to drive the fan experience at league games.  I had to take off to get ready for my pitch, but there were some intriguing talks on analytics and their applications for sports business and on-field performance, and the challenges of integrating them into club operations.

The second day of the conference covered analytics innovation — from in-game analytics developed internally by professional teams (no accident that both are in Silicon Valley), startups (NumberFire), or academics (Kirk Goldsberry and Elaine Allen) to new analytics to increase match revenue and improve fan engagement.  For me, the highlight of the conference was the concluding panel session titled “Making sense of the data that you have” and composed of Jeff Agoos, Kirk Goldsberry, and Ben Alamar (Director of Basketball Analytics at Oklahoma City Thunder).

There were four guiding questions of the session:

  • How essential is support from senior management?
  • Will analytics lead to a transition from decision-making based on “gut” or “instinct”?
  • Does the pressure to have instant results have a negative impact on analytics?
  • What is the biggest impact of analytics?

I didn’t take notes for the entire session, but a key line from Jeff Agoos was that the major objective of analytics is to serve as a reasoning artifact for dccision-makers.  It’s important to remember that analytics are just one tool among several, and must leave decision-makers in a better place.  (I did find it interesting that he said that a major use of analytics is to determine and/or explain why a player was not signed.)  The panel also stated (I think it was Goldsberry or Alamar who said this) that the process in a team is just as important at its talent, an observation that bears itself out time and again in the sports world.

I asked whether analytics can produce “better” or “more entertaining” sport (referencing Paul Gardner’s Soccer America article that slammed miCoach), which produced some interesting discussion.  Agoos and Alamar were skeptical that analytics could do this, while Goldsberry took a contrary view and used the Olympic athletics (track and field) competitors as an example.  Perhaps in the case of individual competition, analytics could improve individual performance and increase the chance of not just winning but also setting world records, which yields excitement.  Team competition strikes me as different, the primary objective is to win competitions and there are multiple ways to do so.

Overall I gained a lot of insight from the conference despite missing half of the sessions.  There were multiple applications of sports analytics presented, from in-game metrics to front-office operations, and the presentations were accessible to a broad audience.  This was the first time that I attended an IE Group conference and it was very punctual and well-organized.  The only complaint that I would have is that there were few power strips at the desks in the conference room.  As is always the case at these conferences, the most valuable part of the conference was the interaction with other analysts and decision-makers in other leagues, especially from MLB and the NBA.  There are more than a few people in baseball and basketball who are interested in what us soccer analysts are doing, so let’s not be too isolated from the state-of-the-art in those sports.

The next Sports Analytics Innovation Summit will be in the UK in late March 2013, which will compete with the Science and Football conference in London, but it’s worth checking out.