This weekend's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has quickly become the biggest sporting event of the year that doesn't actually involve people wearing shorts or throwing things at each other. Founded just six years with only 175 participants gathering on MIT's campus to discuss baseball analysis and dispense career advice, this festival of sports statistics has ballooned into a jam-packed weekend starring some of the biggest names in the industry. Not just the industry of math and punditry, but the entire business of sports. This year's event takes takes over the entire Boston Convention Center (it outgrew the Cambridge campus years ago) and will have over 2,200 attendees; nearly 700 more than last year, with a waiting list in the hundreds. All this to listen to math geeks talk about batting average and rebounds per 48 minutes?
Affectionately dubbed "Dorkapoolza" by it own admirers, the reality is that a conference that's touted as a gathering of statistically-minded number crunchers is really a story about how to run a business. (Sloan is MIT's School of Management, after all.) For a sports conference, the event is noticeably athlete-free. While a couple of token pros do occasionally appear as panel guests, this is about the people behind the scenes — those who are trying to figure out how to pick those athletes for their team, how to use them on the field, and how much to pay them without looking like a fool. General managers and team owners are the stars of this show. (The keynote panel features representatives from the current champion of each of the four major North American sports leagues, plus the English Premier League.) The difference between them and the CEOs of most companies is that the sports guys have better data about their employees.... and a lot of their customers have it memorized.
That elephant in the ballroom is ESPN, which is the now the lead sponsor and is slowly infiltrating the conference with its own stars and brands. One of the event's biggest early champions was Bill Simmons, the ESPN.com writer and super fan who has built his own mini-media empire through Grantland.com and his popular podcast, the B.S. Report. (The one that landed Barack Obama today talking about how he knew Jeremy Lin was going to be huge.) The interview podcast is now embedded in the event itself, as Simmons will record two episodes live on stage this weekend, as a sort of keynote conversation. The company will live stream some of the panels on its website, and its daily statistics-themed TV show, Numbers Never Lie, will broadcast from Boston on Friday.
It's clear that the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" is making its stamp on the conference, possibly setting its sights on bigger goals. Toward the end of last year's event, rumors floated through the Boston Convention Center's hallways that the sports giant was planning to gobble up the event and transport it to Disney World. (Boston in early March is not the most attractive business meeting destination.) That hasn't happened — yet? — but the clear implication is that this particular business conference could become its own business. Full-price tickets are $450, startups buy booths to pitch their algorithmic software and eye-tracking technologies, and the stools and chalkboards have been replaced by high-backed leather chairs and multimedia presentations. This is no longer kids asking the adults for a few pointers. The adults have plenty to learn themselves.
The influence that goes both ways, of course. Numbers Never Lie is a show that might never exist without the impact that Sloan's conference has had on the culture; a culture that would never have heard of Sloan without ESPN. One explanation for the boom in the interest in high-level statistical research is a growth of the fantasy sports industry — as usual there will be a panel about fantasy at Sloan — which dominates the fan experience for baseball and football, and is quickly expanding into other sports as well. If amateurs building imaginary sports teams can be a multi-billion-dollar industry, imagine the stakes for those tasked with doing it in real life, with real players and real jobs at stake. Then consider the vast number of companies and side industries piggybacking on the major sports leagues: shoes and apparel, equipment, training and nutrition, vendors, tickets sales. And then there's the biggest driver of all: gambling, which (if you count your bookie) employs more amateur "financial analysts" than Wall Street.
The analytics — the discovery, measurement, and best-case implementation of sports statistics — remains at the heart of this weekend's event, but you'll find very few formulas and calculators at this show. Part business seminar, part academic symposium, and part star-gazing trade show, the Sloan conference has quickly become a place to see and be seen, where bloggers mingle with billionaire owners and ex-coaches explain motivation techniques to grad students. Speaking of students, the event is still organized by the members of Sloan's MBA program, but as it has grown in size and reach, the encroaching presence of sports' biggest company is slowly being felt.
During a brief interview at last year's Sloan Conference, Simmons himself admitted that he's personally not sold on a lot of the high-level analytics being developed today. But as his and his employer's continued and sizable involvement proves, the gathering was never really about the stats anyway. The conference is an opportunity for sports people to think hard about sports. To dig into it and dissect the science of it, yes, but also to create and promote their own theories of how sports work. Like any good bar argument, having evidence on your side helps, but the evidence is almost beside the point. It's the act of simply thinking seriously about the games that brings mathematicians, journalists, agents, and even doctors (injury analytics was a popular panel last year) together in the hope of making their own small mark on the game.
Perhaps the most fascinating segment at Sloan is the "Evolution of Sports" talks, where a couple dozen smart people get a half-hour to simply speculate about the future of the sports world. (Some titles for 2012 include: "Training Baseball Pitch Recognition," "Redefining the Positions in Basketball," and "Quantifying the Force of a Monster Dunk.") Anyone can submit a proposal to talk, because almost anyone can think about sports in creative and interesting way. The genius of Sloan's event was to give the smartest people in the room a microphone and see what happens. It's basically the TED conference of bleacher bums.
The sports world is the perfect environment for experimentation and risk taking, because lives are rarely at stake and there will always be a box score waiting to let you know the results. That is why ideas, as much as the numbers, are really what this weekend will be about. A very, very select few people in this world — the Mark Cubans and Tony LaRussas of the world — ever get to test their theories on a real, honest-to-goodness team. Those guys are the ones playing the ultimate fantasy sport.