Is the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference still worth attending?

I have been attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference since 2010, right at the time that the Conference was transitioning from an intimate meeting of professional sports insiders and academics to a slick and polished cultural event.  As happens every year at this time, I receive notifications from the organizers of the conference that encourage me to purchase my ticket to the SSAC before they are all gone.  These notifications seem to arrive earlier and with greater urgency.  My internal response to the requests seems to arise more quickly and loudly:

Is attending SSAC still worth it?

Cost is one element behind this question.  Tickets for the SSAC rise each year, and it will be a matter of time before they reach $1000 for those who aren’t students or affiliated with MIT.  Boston is a great city for conventions, but it is an expensive city as well, especially if one wishes to stay in a hotel downtown.  That said, the full cost of attending SSAC is half of what it costs to attend a similar conference in London — the Leaders Sports conferences cost almost $1700 from conference fees alone, and then there is a transatlantic flight, food and lodging in one of the most expensive cities of the world.

To answer whether the SSAC is worth the cost, I have to consider whether the SSAC experience represents a large return on my investment in time and money.  The answer depends on your expectations.  If the goal is to meet people in your specific sport (and it’s not one of the Big Four North American sports), trade ideas between them, and get insight from the panelists in the sport-specific panel, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.  I do not think that attending the SSAC is worth it if your primary goal is to watch the Soccer Analytics forum.  The content of the panel has been so poor with little hope of change that it is no longer worth attending in its current form.  I also do not believe that attending the SSAC is worth it if you want to hear perspectives from officials outside North America.  If you’re looking for that, go to the sports conferences in London.

If the goal is to meet people from a wide range of sports and be exposed to the approaches to analytics in different sports, it’s more rewarding.  I’ve met people at the conference who I probably would not have been able to meet without a lot of effort.  Just to give a couple of examples, I met Mitch Lasky and Kirk Goldsberry at the SSAC.  Those two connections alone represent a huge return on my investment over my entire SSAC attendance.  But I’ve learned over the years that prearranged meetings between attendees at the conference rarely happen, and when they do happen, only provide enough time to exchange business cards and agree to keep in contact via email.  Almost all of the valuable contacts at SSAC have occurred by chance.

If the reason for attending the Sloan conference is to listen to presentations on research presentations related to sports analytics, it’s still worth the cost of attending, but barely.  I come from an academic research background, and one of the most redeeming features of the SSAC is its commitment to academic rigor in its research paper tracks — it’s MIT, after all!  I can count on one hand the number of presentations that have had anything to do with soccer, but I’m more interested in learning about different modeling and analysis approaches to specific problems, and identifying any patterns that might be useful for my own work.

I also recognize that I am part of a rapidly shrinking minority as the SSAC transitions into a sports business conference.  The papers that make it to the final round of the research paper competition are almost always high-quality, and the full version of their papers is available to the public.  I can only check out the poster presentations at the conference, which provides opportunities for learning from researchers in other sports, but it’s hit-or-miss.  (You could say that for conversations in the hallways as well.)

When I started to write this post I expected to convince myself that the Sloan conference was no longer value for the money spent on tickets, travel, and lodging.  Now that I’ve thought through the serendipity, the cross-pollination, and the intelligence-gathering associated with the SSAC, I’m coming around to thinking that I should be there.  But the Sloan conference organizers should be made aware: as the conference price continues to rise, I’ll continue to ask myself if attending the SSAC is still worth the investment.