A Stranger in a Strange Land (Part One)


My Journey to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Admittedly, my relationship with advanced stats, or analytics, has not always been the greatest. Even as I've come to accept things like rebounding rate and have started to look at per-minute numbers a little more closely, I'll still take a seasoned scout with a notebook full of observations over a number cruncher with a spreadsheet full of analytics.

So, it was surprising to some people when I decided, back in early December, to register for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Organized by Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, and Jessica Gelman, the Vice President of Customer Marketing and Strategy for the Kraft Sports Group (New England Patriots), the Sloan Sports Conference is the Mecca of sports analytics. Over a two day period, more than 50 panels were given on topics that ranged from labor relations to using statistics in professional golf. Panelists ranged from author Malcolm Gladwell to New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to go to the conference with me, but when told that it would be a two-day conference on sports statistics in Boston, in March, she quickly found some drying paint that needed watching.

Fine, I'll go by myself. Here was my experience:


Day 1: Arriving in Boston

Since registration for the conference began the next day at 7:30 AM, and the first panel started at 8:30, I decided to fly into Boston the day before. I thought I could take in some of the sights, maybe go on a walking tour of Beacon Hill or sample some Boston culture.

I took a cab to the Humphrey terminal of the Minneapolis airport, and as the taxi driver took a carbon imprint of my credit card while we sat outside the gate (I bet the MIT boys would be impressed by that high technology), I sent out a few texts. Unfortunately, I realized when I finally stepped foot inside of the terminal that I had left my cell phone on the seat of the cab.

Great start to weekend. 

The cab had already pulled away, so I caught my flight to Chicago, made my connection, and arrived in Boston phoneless. Instead of spending the next couple of hours visiting the Bull & Finch Pub or the New State House, I wandered around downtown Boston looking for a store that sold phones. $200 later, I was so cold and tired that I just grabbed some dinner and spent the night writing the game preview for the Wolves-Sixers game.



Day 2: Culture Shock

I was so excited, I couldn't sleep. I woke up around 6, pressed some slacks and a nice shirt, and arrived right as registration began. I was also a little nervous. Although I think I can hold my own in a basketball conversation with most people, I was worried someone at the conference would ask me to define 'differential'  or explain Win Shares and I'd be exposed. Fortunately, all they asked me was my name.


Upon registering, each attendee - the conference sold out this year with 1,500 attendees - received an MIT tote bag with some decent S.W.A.G. in it. There was a copy of ESPN the Magazine. A copy of the book "The House Advantage", written by Jeffrey Ma, who was the inspiration for the movie '21'. A Bluetooth with the ESPN logo on it. A nice pen. There was also a program that listed out the panels for the next two days with brief bios on all of the presenters and panelists.


We rode the escalator up to the top level of the Convention Center, where people were eating pastries, drinking orange juice and talking about the days events.


Most of the attendees belonged to one of three groups: College students; bloggers; and team employees. Depending on the team, that could be a couple of interns or it could be the team's general manager, including Rich Cho of the Portland Trail Blazers and Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke of the Denver Nuggets. Tom Penn, Kevin Pritchard, R.C. Buford and Mike Zarren were at the Conference as panelists, along with Cuban and Morey, of course.

The List of Attendees has Matt Bollero as the only representative of the Minnesota Timberwolves.



Panel One: The Birth to Stardom: Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours?

Moderator: Author Malcolm Gladwell

Panelists: ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy; CEO of Athlete's Performance, Mark Verstegen; New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck; and Daryl Morey

In the first panel of the day, the panelists discussed the idea of nature vs. nurture in developing a pro athlete. Malcolm Gladwell opened with the question, "is there such a thing as talent?" and if there is, is there a point where natural talent can be counterproductive to success by stifling work ethic?

Everyone on the panel agreed that certain prerequisites are necessary to be a professional athlete, including both physical and cognitive abilities, but that it generally takes a good amount of practice for anyone to become great. Malcolm Gladwell, both on the panel and in his book, "Outliers", posits that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice for anyone - not only athletes - to fully master a craft. He said when people point out that Mozart composed at the age of 5, Gladwell quips, "have you heard any of what he wrote at 5?"

Jeff Van Gundy brought up Tracy McGrady, a former player for both he and Daryl Morey in Houston, as a player with crazy athlete ability who did not always put in the necessary work ethic. Justin Tuck told a story about two players he played with growing up in Alabama: Jamario Moon and Gerald Wallace. Moon was the more talented of the two, but Wallace tried to compensate by spending more time in the gym. While Moon made the NBA, his career has not been nearly as successful as Wallace's. 

"When people are telling you that you're great, it can be easy to grow lazy," Tuck observed.

Gladwell asked the question that if talent can be counterproductive to work ethic, shouldn't GMs avoid more talented players in the draft in favor of harder working ones? Do GMs overvalue potential and lose sight of what a player really is?

Van Gundy answered by saying that to win, "you might have to make a deal with things you don't like." He said he has a rule of "Soft, Selfish and Stupid"; a player can be one of the three but not more than one.

Morey agreed that in the draft, GMs are often picking flaws more than picking attributes and making gambles on which flaws they can improve. He said that pre-draft interviews are critical to learn how coachable a player is likely to be. A player cannot simply practice for 10,000 hours unless he or she is practicing with purpose. "Otherwise, you're wasting time." Morey and Van Gundy brought up Yao Ming and Shane Battier as examples of very coachable players. Van Gundy talked about Patrick Ewing as coachable, "unless he wasn't getting the ball".

Van Gundy also said that, "coachable is just enough to get you beat. You need the T-Mac's of the world to win".

Gladwell asked each panelist to name the biggest example of a player who blew his opportunity by not working hard, despite having tremendous talent.

Van Gundy mentioned Stromile Swift. With more effort, Van Gundy felt that Swift could've lived up to his selection as the #2 overall pick, but that his expectations and Swift's expectations were at very different levels.

Morey listed Marcus Banks. He was disappointment when, during a pre-draft interview, Marcus Banks told Morey that his true passion was to be a "male fashion model".

Justin Tuck and Mark Verstegen both agreed on JaMarcus Russell. Tuck told a story of watching Russell before a high school game throw a 72-yard pass from his knee.

Verstegen ended the panel by saying that there are too many kids who are living the life and not doing the job. They forget that once they sign the contract, they actually have to go and fulfill that contract by doing the work. With analytics, there is no where for a player to hide his flaws anymore.



Panel Two: The Coming War, Sports Labor Relations

Moderator: ESPN columnist Jackie MacMullan

Panelists: Former NBA Deputy Commissioner, Russ Granik; Sports Illustrated Legal Analyst, Mike McCann; President of the Postolos Group, George Postolos; Professor of Economics at Smith College, Andrew Zimbalist; and NBA Analyst Tom Penn

Panelists discussed the looming lockouts in both the NBA and the NFL and the legal implications of the CBAs in those leagues. There was some talk about the current events surrounding the NFL and the NFL Players' Association, including attempts to decertify and an attempt to get an injunction against ta lockout.

In the NFL, most teams do well financially. The Green Bay Packers (who, because they are a publicly traded company, disclose financial statements) made a 10 million dollar profit the previous season. This is unlike the NBA, where small market teams have had huge losses. Postolos said that, compared to 10 years ago, the situation in the NBA is dire. Only about 6 or 7 teams make a profit, and with players receiving a larger percentage of revenue, costs continue to go up. Postolos said that major changes should be necessary in the NBA, whereas in the NFL, only tweaks to the system are necessary.

The idea of revenue sharing was brought up, but many of the panelists thought that revenue sharing was not going to be an effective solution. Russ Granik cited David Stern's report of $370 million in aggregate losses last season, and while there was some disagreement about the exact numbers, all the panelists agreed that the losses were substantial. Simple revenue sharing would only bring down the profitable teams and would not make the teams at the bottom healthy again. Andrew Zimbalist posited that revenue sharing should not be welfare for owners and that there still needs to be incentives to get owners to act like entrepreneurs. By itself, revenue sharing only moves money around.

The topic of LeBron/Carmelo and franchise tags was brought up.

No one on the panel seemed to like the idea of a franchise tag. Russ Granik thought that some of the fans and media were overreacting to the player movement of the past season. Tom Penn brought up the point that Amar'e, Carmelo, LeBron, Bosh, etc., had all re-upped with their teams initially and had given the first 7-8 years of their careers to their original teams.

How can teams and players prepare for the lockout?

Panolos suggested that teams will start laying people off, since sponsors and season ticket holders may leave if there is a lengthy lockout. Tom Penn said that teams will still be competitive while the lockout is going on. While they cannot have contact with their players, they can still scout and will still discuss future moves with other teams. He said the smart teams will talk to players before hand about staying ready for when play resumes.

Teams can still draft players, in both the NBA and NFL, but they cannot trade, sign free agents or sign draft picks.

As far as the players are concerned, the date when most players will miss their first paycheck is November 15th. Since players may not feel a squeeze until then, Penn felt that there may not be much urgency for the players to make many concessions. Jackie MacMullen said that Shaq told her he did not notice he was not getting paid during the 1998-99 NBA lockout. A panelist also mentioned Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, who ballooned up to over 350 pounds while the lockout was going on.

What will the impact of the lockout be on the league image?

Everyone agreed that fans will start to tune out when games are canceled, but there was disagreement as to how much lasting damage that will have on the sport. While the NBA lost several hundred million dollars, according to Granik, during the 98-99 lockout, he believes that most fans have kind of forgotten the lockout.

MacMullen brought up the point about the collateral damage of a lockout, which harms bars and restaurants in the area, media outlets who cover those sports and advertisers.

Can't the league's problems all be solved by owners making wiser financial decisions?

This panel solicited questions from members of the audience. Someone asked the question about why NBA teams cannot simply make better decisions to fix revenue problems.

Tom Penn said that if you want to compete in the NBA, you have to spend money. He pointed to the opposite ends of the spectrum with the Clippers' model (where a team spends little and wins little, but makes money) and the Spurs' model (where a team spends a lot, wins a lot, but does not make money).

Zimbalist agreed and said that, sure, a player might not be worth $60 million over 5 years, but some team will give the player that money, so either the team spends to compete or loses the player and is worse off on the court. He also made the point that the 6 or 7 teams who do make money are not examples of disciplined spending, but instead, benefit from the market. Even spending very little will not, by itself, make some teams profitable.

Postolos added that the NBA has salary floors that force teams to spend a certain amount of money.

Penn ended the session by saying that there are no parades for a good balance sheet and no one hangs banners for profitability. The league should be about winning. Historically, a person would buy an NBA team, break even, win games and perhaps sell the team in the future once it has appreciated in value. Now, that does not work. Most teams do not break even and franchises are not appreciating in the same way as before.



After the second panel of the day, it was lunchtime. The Conference provided several sandwich, wrap and salad options from local restaurants that were quite nice. I had a Chipotle Chicken Salad. They also had some events taking place during the lunch hour.

I chose to go watch a discussion between Olympic gold medal speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and ESPN analyst Ric Bucher. The two discussed Ohno's training habits and diet, as well as how Ohno uses analytics to research other athletes and to improve his own performance.


(To Be Continued...)

In Part Two: Panels led by Mike Wilbon and Marc Stein, as well as my first trip to Boston's TD Bankrnorth Garden.

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