It was once rightfully so called “Geekfest,” a small to medium size gathering of young men looking to figure out how to make statistical analysis more relevant. However the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as a brand has now grown into an event that has probably even surpassed the vision of what its founders, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Kraft Sports VP of Consumer Marketing and Strategy Jessica Gelman could have ever imagined; a gathering not just of several thousand general manager wanna-be’s, but a place where those largely behind the scenes in professional sports come to listen to learn and to discuss the business of how to make sport better.
While some bemoaned the fact that the event has gotten too big, many others felt that this year’s event had listened to its critics and actually become more open in topics, ideas and speakers. ESPN has played a key role in driving topics and speakers in the past few years as the event expanded its footprint to the point where many others doing great work in the space who were not aligned with “The Worldwide Leader” were driven away or excluded from the conversation during the two day event. This year, rightfully so, panel discussions were left to those who know the space best; the popular baseball analytics panel was run by The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and included speakers from MLB Network, Bloomberg Sports and elsewhere, and showed that the conference was not just an ESPN “love fest” as had happened in recent years as the conference expanded its audience.
The vibe of the conference is different from most other “industry” events, because of its academic nature and its audience. Hours before the first Friday session, several hundred industry wanna-be’s buzzed around the lobby of the Westin Hotel, wearing their Sunday best and gleefully discussing which panels and speakers they wanted to see. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sat among the throngs of young people listening to the discussion of building a culture with a franchise between Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, while later NBA D-league president Dan Reed, Utah Jazz assistant GM Scott Layden, Washington Wizards assistant GM Tommy Sheppard, and others sat in to discuss the making of a champion with Malcolm Gladwell and “Sports Gene” author David Epstein. Former Calgary Flames president Brian Burke hovered with the NBA’s Kiki Vanderweighe as Gladwell and new NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about potential changes to the draft and the playoff system rarely heard before, while scores of MLB and NFL assistant GM’s and player personnel and development folks mixed with high school and job seekers to hear adidas talk about the future of wearable tech and its impact on developing players and maintaining careers. The Celtics Brad Stevens walked the hall almost unbothered as he entered a session on using data in college and now in the NBA, while Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was asked for nary an autograph while posing for a selfie or two after his panel on player performance.
Discussions about the hair choices of Glad well and fivethirtyeight founder Nate Silver were as prominent as the talks between soccer officials on which panel on leadership they should attend.
This year there was even breaking news this year when former Toronto Raptors head Bryan Colangelo candidly and openly discussed the fact that he had wanted the team to dump games during part of his run there to better improve their draft position in seasons deemed hopeless. Although Colangelo was quick to say he never discussed the push to lose with coaches and players, it was something that the wide ranging amount of media as well as those engaged in live conversations in social media quickly turned into news well beyond the walls of the Hynes Convention Center. Tyler Hamilton had his first face to face discussion with USADA’s Travis Tygart on the debilitating and damaging use of steroids and other PED’s in cycling. Rarely would those types of unfiltered conversations take place at industry events where the audience is more corporate, and the networking and news is done more in hushed tones away from the bright lights of the speakers stage.
Oh there were the stats, with panels like Baseball Analytics, Coaching Analytics etc etc. But there were also first rate panels on Social Media Marketing, International Expansion and the Future of Sports Media and sales, with industry leaders like Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Fanatics founder Michael Rubin debating the future of the apparel market, while AS Roma head Jim Pallotta, Octagon President Phil de Piciotto, Celtics owner Wync Grosbeck and MLB.com head Bob Bowman all voiced their open opinions about the global nature of sport, the need for innovation and the value of having sound business functions to parallel an entrepreneurial spirit.
Other than the Ivy Sports Symposium (founded at Princeton by grad Chris Chaney and now rotating among several Ivy League schools), which in many ways has become the fall sister to MIT’s late winter event, the MIT Sloan Event is more about those looking to engage and get into the field of sports business and analytics, combined with people actively engaged in the onfield business of sports. While the highly successful events run by the Sports Business Journal deal with those off the field topics (as does the growing annual Bloomberg Business of Sports event, much more of a C Suite gathering with its own unique focus) , MIT and Ivy take a different approach to audience and structure. Many times the value in conferences is less what is said on stage than what is said in the hallways and over lunch. If you missed a session at MIT and were out kibitzing in the hallways, you missed real learning experience and thought that you might not have heard before, and you might not hear again because of the rare collection of leaders from varied places.
Geekfest? Maybe. As someone who was once accused of being part of the “lunatic fringe of sport” there is something to be said for a bit of Geekiness. However as someone who also attends multiple events, it was still a very entertaining few days that industry leaders others can learn from and build upon. After all, isn’t that what colleges and universities are really supposed to do for all of us? Find ways to inform and inspire and get us out of thinking what we do every day is the best way to do it.
Congrats to all those like-minded dudes. See you next March with an even bigger crowd.