Moneyball and Mark Cuban

Thoughts from the Sloan Sports Conference

I somehow managed to wake myself up Saturday morning to attend MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. I ventured into the main conference room and plopped down in one of the back rows, opening my laptop to take notes on a panel discussion on the future of sports ownership.

Sitting behind me was Mark Cuban.

Yes, Mark Cuban, the polarizing owner of the Dallas Mavericks, was chilling behind me in jeans and tennis shoes, texting. Needless to say, I did a triple take and had to wipe the star-struck look off of my face. Now this is a way to start.

The day’s conference held four sets of three 80 minute conferences simultaneously on a myriad of topics, all focused on the business aspect of sports, emphasizing the role of analysis and analytics in each market.

The marquee event was a panel discussion about the roles and limits of analytics titled “What Geeks Don’t Get: The Limits of Moneyball.” Isn’t there more to sports than a computer crunching numbers? Where does old-fashioned wisdom come into play in today’s world of statistics and replays, when even the most minute, seemingly irrelevant details catalogued and analyzed?

That debate goes to the heart of the conference, which examines how technology, statistics and analytics are changing the sports industry. Have technological advances allowed the computer to trump the seasoned scout?

The start-studded panel discussion, moderated by Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, set the tone:

“Well,” said ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, “I want to congratulate everyone on setting a record for the most dudes in a conference room at one time.”

The discussion on statistical analysis had the over-arching theme that sports is no longer purely for joy of the fan, but is a real business that has the same operations, management and sales needs of any large, mainstream business.

The business sense, with every aspect of marketing, media, venue, revenue boost, personnel and analysis were all covered in forums with leaders of their industry, ranging from Cuban, Daryl Morey MBA ’00, general manager of the Houston Rockets and Sloan MBA graduate of the class of 2000, to Bill Polian, president of the Colts, Jonathan Kraft, owner of the Patriots, Matt Silverman, president of the Tampa Bay Rays, and more.

The technological advancements that have dramatically changed sports were discussed in a varied way: new mathematical formulas and analysis for increased success, the use of social networks like facebook for increased sales, increased performance in the scientific study of the body for performance enhancement (the natural way), and architecture and energy reforms in stadium and arena developments for efficient sports.

Saturday was the fourth time this popular annual event has been organized. This year there were over 400 people on the waiting list, hoping one of the 1,000 ticketholders would discover he or she had a scheduling conflict.

The conference was chaired by Morey and Jessica Gelman, the director of new business development and operational initiatives for the Kraft Group, alongside 13 Sloan MBA candidates who took charge of different aspects of the conference, like projects, public relations, communications. The conference is a great example of the work MIT students, be they undergraduate or graduate, can do — we think big, don’t we?

Clips and videos of the conference will soon be available on the conference’s webside,

And, oh yes, Mark Cuban is as much of a character as the media makes him out to be; but he is a lot friendlier and more knowledgeable than how SportsCenter may depict him.