March 1st, 2013

Dorkapalooza 2013, Day One: Recapping the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Over 2,700 sports executives, analysts, journalists, and enthusiasts are gathered in Boston this weekend to attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC). The Sloan Sports conference began in 2006 when MIT students sought to organize a formal discussion about the role of analytics in sports. In 2009, ESPN’s Bill Simmons was a guest speaker and he nicknamed the conference Dorkapalooza. MIT graduate students continue to run the conference today.

Now a widely-anticipated annual event with ESPN and SAP as corporate sponsors, the 6th SSAC features some of the brightest, forward-thinking minds in sports, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, MLBAM President and CEO Bob Bowman, Moneyball author Michael Lewis, The New York Times’ Nate Silver, San Francisco 49ers COO Parag Marathe, San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford, and more.

We’ve watched panels throughout Day One. Here are some early observations:

  • Measure skills, not outcomes. Video technology is unlocking the next frontier for understanding performance, especially in the NBA and MLB. Instead of focusing on how many times a player gets on base or shoots a corner three pointer, teams are now focusing on the body motions that increase the percentages of hits or shots. Aspiring sabermatricians should study physiology in addition to statistics.
  • Outcomes get you fired. When the season is over, the coach or GM’s job hinges on a team’s win and projected growth. Owners, fans, and writers don’t want to hear about what the stats say. They want rings and parades. As long as good outcomes can be built on bad processes to let coaches or GMs keep their job, change will be slow.
  • The NFL has a long way to go. Of the big three sports - MLB, NBA and the NFL - the NFL lags in adopting advanced metrics. The primary culprits are culture, degree of difficulty, and history. The NFL values people who don’t come across as smart. Scott Pioli said, “football seems to have more testosterone than other sports.” Most teams still don’t employ “math guys” and instead turn to poorly paid former college players who are now Quality Control Coaches. Over the next few years, expect the NFL to increasingly invest in better ways to understand injuries and preventing injuries.
  • Study persuasion. Statistics by themselves won’t sway decision makers. The most talented front office professionals are also skilled communicators who can persuade general managers, coaches and owners about the value of these new statistics. Parag Marathe would rather hire someone who is right 30% of the time and can communicate clearly over someone who is right 100% of the time and can’t persuade his own mother.
  • Convince your owner to ignore the media. Former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke describes the internet as “sports talk radio on steroids with lower IQ.” It is imprudent to make decisions off of blog posts, but general managers and coaches feel the pressure if their boss (the owner) gets caught up in the day to day media churn. The most successful teams are usually owned by people with thick skin.
  • Sophisticated medical staffs. The Dallas Mavericks sign their team doctors to longer contracts than their assistant coaches. There is a large demand for high caliber sports physicians and psychologists. These medical professionals are tasked with more than injury management. They are now involved in cutting edge research, such as genetic testing to optimize a player’s minutes during the regular season.
  • Networking isn’t going away. If you want a job in sports, who you know still matters more than what you know. SSAC started with a panel titled Revenge of the Nerds, but being smart isn’t enough. If you want a front office job, network, study, network, write, network and then network some more. It doesn’t hurt if your freshman roommate was a scholarship football player.
  • The 10 year rule. Bill Walsh told Bill Polian that you should quit your front office job after 10 years. To truly build a contender, you will make a lot of enemies and by 10 years, you are no longer effective.
  • NFL executives really don’t like the Combine. There was nothing positive said about the combine, only statements about how teams are trying to hack the tests by predicting times before athletes run; identifying different submetrics like breakway speed; and bringing in new tests. The Combine seems to have become a ratings play for NFL Network rather than a legitimate testing group for draftees.


Bonus fun facts from the more relaxed panelists.

  • The NFL bans calculators. The most absurd fact of the day came from Parag Marathe: the NFL has “an anti-technology rule” that bans any electronic device — iPads, laptops, calculators — from coaches. So the offensive coordinator in the booth is using pen and paper to calculate in-game stats and the Quality Control coach is analyzing the game by citing the success percentage of plays by using arithmetic.
  • Mark Cuban, Sitcom Star? Michael Lewis wrote a television pilot about Wall Street that featured Mark Cuban. Lewis cited Cuban’s financial knowledge and dancing moves as motivating attributes when writing Cuban’s character.
  • Nate Silver is behind the baseball curve. Silver made his bones by designing advanced baseball statistics, yet when asked about the current level of sophistication in sabermetrics, Silver responded that the kids these days “are light years ahead of where I was.”
  • Tony Romo is the most underrated quarterback in the NFL. When asked to name the most overrated and underrated player in the NFL, a panel of NFL executives expectedly balked and passed on answering. Luckily, Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz was on the panel as well. Schatz declared DeAngelo Hall the most overrated player in the NFL, and said that observers often unfairly punish a player for his transgressions on nationally televised games. So, he cited Tony Romo and Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David as the two most underrated players in football.
  • Erik Spoelstra: NBA innovator. In 1990, Erik Spoelstra was an assistant video/statistics coach for the New York Knicks. He used to hand slips of paper to Pat Riley with what we now know as advanced NBA statistics, including hustle plays, 50/50 balls, and contested shots.
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