Can Watson pick a point guard? Sports analytics shows the way


I’m supposed to be pretty good at statistical-based predictions, but I could not have predicted how much the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference would grow in just five years. The success is not just in attendance – this year’s March  4-5 event was another sellout – but in the range of topics, sports, and speakers. And that reflects a bigger trend:  analytics has expanded not just within sports such as baseball and basketball where it has been accepted, but to other professional leagues, such as hockey and football.

Just like it was only a matter of time until IBM’s Watson would share the stage with human contestants on Jeopardy, it makes sense for other sports to turn to analytics to assess and improve their operations. While the job of every sports executive has always been to find the best players to give their team the best chance of winning a title with the least amount of risk, they now have another important tool they can use. Twenty years ago, decisions were based on scouting reports and a bunch of assumptions. An NBA team would consider a potential point guard’s quickness or his passing or defense abilities. Decisions were generally made either by consensus or by an owner or by the person with the most power. But today, teams can turn to their own Watson, to sports analytics as an extra resource they can use to test all the assumptions.  You can still disagree with analytics– they aren’t perfect — but they can expose flaws in your thinking that you might not otherwise discover.  And Watson doesn’t worry about offending the boss.

MIT Sloan seeks to expand the understanding of sports analytics within the sports business world.  The conference also offers a great opportunity for students and sports executives to share not only ideas, but resumes. Our best interns at the Houston Rockets come from this conference and many become some of our best employees.  That’s just one reason why the turnout of the conference keeps expanding.  So does the agenda. One of this month’s panels, for instance, explored the application of analytics to sports officiating, including how to identify sources of bias in refereeing and ways to evaluate and improve referee performance. Among others, that panel featured Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and NFL referee Mike Carey, who has 36 years of football officiating experience.  That range and caliber of speakers was typical of every panel over the two-day conference. It showed how different sports can learn from each other.

I don’t know where the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference will head next — I never envisioned that it would take off like it has. But the interest and use of analytics can only continue to expand.  After all, whether you’re an owner or just a fan, everyone feels they have a stake in the business of sports.

Daryl Morey is General Manager & Managing Director of Basketball Operations for the Houston Rockets and  MIT Sloan MBA ‘2000

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