Thoughts on the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Along with seven other MBAs from the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, I attended the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past week.

2000 sports nerds gathered over the two days to listen to some incredible speakers, including former NBA coach Phil Jackson, author Malcolm Gladwell, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, and a number of other respected and powerful people  from the sports industry (GMs, network executives, coaches, athletes, authors, reporters, and more). The trip also featured some great seafood, cold weather, and a memorable experience at Fenway Park.

This year marked the eighth annual Sports Analytics Conference put on by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The conference is the brainchild of former MIT student and current Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Some of my fellow Oregon MBAs are very interested in the analytics side of sport, whereas I was more interested in hearing about advancements in the analytics of health, fitness, and media. On that note, Luck and Hasselbeck were on an Athlete Analytics panel with the Adir Shiffman, the chairman of Catapult Sports, an Australian-based company that consults with numerous professional sports teams with regards to fitness and health tracking. Adidas was a conference sponsor and they also had a panel discussion about what they are doing with elite wearable technology. It was pretty cool to see and hear what is actually being used on and with the most elite athletes around the globe.


The Oregon MBA crew.

While the conference has the word analytics in its title, a lot of the panels went beyond that scope in their discussions. Former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy was unsurprisingly entertaining and raised some great points about the shortcomings of analytics and data, while Calgary Flames President Brian Burke waged his annual war on analytics (Burke is what you would call “old school” in his beliefs on the topic).

More from Van Gundy (a great excerpt from his panel talk):

To me, I think that a lot of the analytic stuff can be very useful, but if you’re using that in place of sitting down and watching film yourself and seeing what’s going on, you’re making a big mistake.


And I don’t want to offend anybody, but I think one of the problems with analytics — I think it’s good; I used it, I love looking at it — but one of the problems is, there are a lot of people in a lot of organizations who don’t know the game, who all they know is analytics and as a result, that’s what they rely on. And they will use that to supersede what guys like us see with our eyes. And I think that’s a major mistake. There’s no substitute for watching film over and over and over again, and the only numbers I trust are the ones that my people believe.

Former NBA exec Bryan Colangelo openly admitted to trying to tank a few years ago, and Morey shared some behind-the-scenes insights on the Dwight Howard negotiations from this past summer. There was a definite NBA theme to the conference, which wasn’t a huge surprise considering who organizes the event and who comprised the majority of the speaker roster.

The highlights

My favorite panel of the conference featured Gladwell and David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene. They talked a lot about the nature vs. nurture debate with regards to athletic ability (and ability in general). Gladwell has famously pushed forth his belief that anyone can excel at anything given enough practice time (10,000 hours, to be exact), while Epstein believes that there needs to be an inherent level of ability to begin.

On the Adidas panel, it was interesting to hear about the positive results that several teams are having from tracking athletic performance at practices. For example, Bayern Munich striker Arjen Robben had his practice time cut in half after the team realized he was reaching his work output/capacity in about half the time of his teammates (this also explained why he was consistently injuring himself in games). Robben is now healthier than ever and playing tremendous soccer (although I just Googled him and found out that he recently sustained a thigh injury… so there’s that).

The hockey analytics panel.

The hockey analytics panel.

Phil Jackson was obviously very insightful as he talked about what it takes to build a dynasty. In addition to the importance of star players (MJ and Kobe were mentioned), Jackson talked about getting buy-in to the team philosophy. He also mentioned how he placed a lot of value on practices, which is something that a lot of teams seem to be moving further away from nowadays. Oh, and he also shared the special nickname he had for Shaq during their time together in LA (‘fatso’).

Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith were on a panel that focused on the creation and sustaining of a strong working relationship from the front office to the field. While the Falcons had a dismal 2013 season, they have still been one of the most consistent NFL clubs over the past five years. A lot of that is due to the vision set forth by Dimitroff and implementation of that vision by Smith. They talked in great detail about the Matt Ryan contract, as well as the trade up at the draft for Julio Jones. It was a pretty open and candid discussion on how to really build a sports team and how to unite it under a common goal.


I had never been to Boston before and this trip served as a great excuse to get over there. Outside of the conference we covered a lot of ground in only a few days – great seafood (great food in general), a brewery visit (we are from Oregon, after all) to Harpoon, and a snowy walk around Fenway Park, inarguably the most iconic stadium in North America. Some of us also took the trip just outside of the city to watch Boston College take on Notre Dame in college hockey.

BC vs. Notre Dame at the Conte Forum.

BC vs. Notre Dame at the Conte Forum.

In addition to being historic and absolutely beautiful, Boston was cold as heck the entire time we were there. The polar vortex has managed to avoid Oregon this winter, but it hasn’t been so kind to Boston. I had to spend a lot of the trip explaining to people that just because I am from Canada, it doesn’t mean that I am an experienced polar vortex…er.

Key takeaways

The ability to track and gather the data is far ahead of the actual analysis of it.

Many teams and leagues have complied mountains and mountains of data, but they are still figuring out the best way to actually use it. The analytics developed are only useful if they are applied in a specific and actionable way, particularly when working with athletes. They are so focused on their sport that they can’t afford to be distracted by anything – having analytics that provide value and are easily explainable is very important for athletes (both Luck and Hasselbeck brought this up a few times).

It is still all about people and relationships, and data won’t change that. 

Snowy Fenway.

Snowy Fenway.

Data and numbers help to fill in the gaps and provide context for decision making, but it is still about people. At the end of the day, a human has to take the data and make a decision with it (I wonder how long until we have our first robot general manager?), and there is always room for interpretation.

I liked the fact that most of the speakers kept bringing the topic back to people and the human element of analytics and data.

After so much focus on the rather dehumanizing process of commodifying athlete performance, the Sloan Conference somehow managed to commodify the humanity of its speakers. Near everyone at Sloan believes in the competitive power of data, but Sloan, like sports, is a personality driven business. Selling tickets to Phil Jackson talking extemporaneously is easier than selling tickets to a guy you’ve never heard of, expounding on rebounding.

The future of sports media production and consumption is going to be very interesting to track over the next few years.

There were a few panels that focused on analytics from a media perspective, and it was very interesting to hear about the large television deals that seem to be the latest trend for MLB teams. As Silver noted, this is the first generation of people that are consuming less television than the previous generation. Pretty monumental stuff.

Adam Silver is going to be a heck of a commissioner for the NBA.

Silver and Gladwell had a panel together on the second day of the conference. The new NBA commissioner talked about increasing the draft eligibility age from 19 to 20, potential expansion to Seattle (and/or Europe), the impact of social media on the game, and the future of the sport and how he is going to work with all stakeholders to continue to grow the game.20140301_100340

Silver “gets it” with regards to how people view sports and where the industry is heading. He understands the importance of working with his key constituents (the players) instead of against them. With the potential concussion issues facing the NFL, the slow decline of the MLB, and the lockout-happy NHL, the NBA is primed to emerge as the premier league in North America.

Sleep is so important to athletic performance

Some of the best quotes from a very interesting sleep analytics panel:

A a person needs 8.2 hours of sleep per 24 hours to perform at an optimal level.

It will be interesting to see if these findings have an effect on future scheduling (less back-to-backs?).

Without sleep, people (and NBA players) could see deficiencies in reaction time, injuries, signals to the brain, infection and length of recovery time.

Sleep studies and metrics are fairly prevalent now in the sports industry, as they should be. Teams invest hundreds of millions of dollars into their star athletes, and getting a return on that investment could hinge on that athlete getting eight hours of sleep per night compared to five or six.

Dunkin’ Donuts is a way of life in Boston.

I think this one speaks for itself. There seemed to be one on every block in every corner of the city (usually accompanied by a line out the door).

All in all, the trip was well worth a sleepless redeye flight, a polar vortex, and a blizzard. Boston is a beautiful and historic city, and the conference is a great way to meet some interesting people from the industry and to hear about the present and future of sports analytics.

Written by Jeff Angus

Jeff is a 2015 MBA Candidate at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. He was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada and obtained a Bachelor of Commerce Degree from the University of Victoria (BC) in 2009.He frequently shares his thoughts on Twitter @anguscertified and is passionate about writing, storytelling, fitness, health, and everything and anything sports-related.