In 2007, Daryl Morey, MIT Sloan MBA ’00, and Jessica Gelman of The Kraft Sports Group had a vision to build a forum for innovation in sports. Just five years later, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference developed into that and more. With more than 2,200 participants, the conference grew by 50% from 2011 and featured some of the biggest names in the industry, including Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner, Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs President and GM, Mark Cuban, owner of the world-champion Dallas Mavericks, and Bill James, the founder of the sports analytics movement. It even included Drew Carey, owner of the MLS Seattle Sounders and Price is Right host.
With 23 panels, the conference covered sports including baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, motorsports, eSports, and soccer and a wide range of business topics such as fanalytics, negotiation, ticketing, brand equity, and media rights. In addition, it featured 10 research paper presenters (chosen from 100+) that competed for a $7,500 grand prize and 11 innovators who presented their Evolution of Sport ideas (chosen from 80+ submissions).
The conference kicked off last Friday with a panel titled In the Best Interest of the Game: The Evolution of Sports Leagues in which featured the perspectives of an agent, an owner, and executives from several leagues. Panelists discussed how leagues have evolved in areas like labor negotiations and how they are focused on future topics such as international growth. As someone pursuing a business career in sports, I was both surprised and encouraged when Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB commented on the major role business analytics played in their recent labor negotiations. Manfred even went as far as to say that his business analysts played a bigger role than lawyers. That is good news for all of us sports-minded MBAs.
Throughout the event, participants could pick from any number of simultaneous panel discussions to attend, but one of the highlights for me was the baseball analytics panel. It featured Rocco Baldelli (former rookie of the year), Jeff Luhnow (Astros GM), Mark Shapiro (Indians President), Scott Boras (Baseball’s super-agent), and James. It was fascinating to hear them discuss how they use analytics to not only evaluate a player’s performance, but also to determine value. Luhnow even remarked that there may one day be a Black-Scholes formula for valuing baseball players just as it is used for valuing options.
Another personal highlight was the session titled Competitive Advantage: Sports Business Analytics, which demonstrated how data-driven decision-making has also taken over the business side of sports. It featured Valerie Camillo from the NBA who talked about using analytics to quantify the impact of sports sponsorship and Chris Marinak from MLB who talked about using injury analytics to analyze medical data to improve player health. The session also included Bobby Gallo and Brian Lafemina from the NFL who discussed the league’s innovative use of stadium heat maps to optimize revenue by appropriately pricing tickets.
Saturday’s excitement came in the Franchises in Transition panel. Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, talked about the team’s transition after losing Yao Ming, a global superstar, and how the league-wide miss on Jeremy Lin was a “Type II error.” Drew Carey stole the show when he shared that his Seattle Sounders team gives fans an opportunity to vote out the team’s GM every four years. By treating fans as if they’re shareholders, the Sounders selected a slate of fans to operate like a board of directors. It was encouraging to see business principles such as pay-for-performance and fiscal accountability translate to the sports industry, which often doesn’t happen in a world driven by passion and emotion.
On the other hand, a not so encouraging part of the event was when ESPN columnist Bill Simmons asked Mark Cuban what advice he’d give to students who want to work in sports. Mark’s answer was simple: Don’t do it. He described how there are 1,000 applicants for every individual job and people are willing to work for free. While it was helpful in terms of setting expectations, it did not change my perspective that students should discover what they were made to do (i.e. what they excel in and enjoy doing most). If that happens to be in sports then Mark’s comments need not apply.
Although it may seem like the conference reached an all-time high in terms of participation and speakers, it is really just at the beginning of its growth. The environment for sports analytics and this conference is just now heating up. As more people see this conference as a forum for innovation in sports, it will continue to attract interest, ideas and collaboration among leaders that will bring a heightened level of quality and volume of groundbreaking new ideas. Our team’s vision is for this conference to someday be on par with the Consumer Electronics Show and Comic Con as a globally recognized event in entertainment, business, and innovation. So this is really just opening day in the world of sports innovation.
Larry Lataif, MIT Sloan MBA ’12, is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He served as co-lead of the MIT Sports Analytics Conference that was held March 2-3
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