SSAC 2015 unites Stats with Sports

Sports analytics keeps growing

The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, held on Feb. 27 and 28, is the mecca for sports fans — dozens of teams from almost every major league, and hundreds of sports industry organizations were represented.

The centerpiece of the day’s keynote panel, featuring Shane Battier, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, author Michael Lewis, and NBA coach Jeff van Gundy, was Battier himself. Dubbed the “No-stats All-Star,” Battier was on the stage because of his uncanny intelligence in every aspect of the game. Without realizing he’d been doing it, Battier has spent his career playing by the statistics that drive the game, creating unprecedented efficiency for himself and his teammates. Lewis brought him into the spotlight, and Battier is now at the forefront of a wave of emphasis on analytics that has the potential to improve play and increase revenue in every sport.

The new age of analytics is something Morey strongly believes in. “If you can dream it, you can do it. Any question you can now answer, it’s just about time and money,” he said, echoing the entire theme of the Conference. Five or more talks were occurring simultaneously throughout the day, ranging from franchise valuation to sports entrepreneurship to sports media, everything centered around utilizing big data.

A panel entitled Business of Sports, with Celtics Co-owner Steve Pagliuca, Octagon president Phil de Picciotto, US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, was perhaps the most entertaining. In between serious talk about monetizing and modernizing the next-generation sports stadium, and expanding basketball to countries like India, Gulati and Ranadive ripped each other with playful banter.

The SSAC drew its fair share of regulators and commissioners, also. New NBA commissioner Adam Silver and new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred were present, as well as Major League Soccer’s Don Garber.

Fifty-four graduate students from MIT Sloan’s Entertainment, Media, and Sports club put together the incredible event, which was held at the Boston Convention Center. Over 100 volunteers and 19 sponsors made the conference possible for over 3100 attendees.

Booz Allen Hamilton took an entire room to showcase its latest work with machine learning and data — for example, they’ve been developing a machine learning technology to predict football plays, which was trained with data from past NFL seasons.

Some small student-focused events were scattered across the two days. An inaugural hackathon, presented by conference sponsor ESPN, drew 36 participants, with the winner in the student division receiving an internship at ESPN Stats and Info. The First Pitch Business Case Competition and research papers were also geared towards the over 850 students who bought tickets.