MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Q&A with Co-Chair Daryl Morey

Daryl Morey, MIT Sloan MBA ‘00

As General Manager and Managing Director of Basketball Operations for the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey MBA ’00 has built a team that has gone a combined 227-167 (.576) over the last five seasons and has set a number of team records. In 2010, his innovative integration of statistical analytics into the evaluation of NBA talent, earned Morey selection to the SportsBusiness Journal Forty Under 40, which honors the most promising young executives in sports business under the age of 40. Prior to Houston, he served as SVP of Operations for the Boston Celtics.

Morey is also the co-chair of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a sports forum he founded in 2007 with Jessica Gelman of the New England Patriots. The conference—dubbed the “Super Bowl of sports analytics” by one ESPN columnist—examines the application of data and statistics to improve team and league performance. The fifth annual conference wrapped up over the weekend with its biggest numbers yet: five stages, 39 panels, and close to 3,000 attendees.

The MIT Sloan Experts Blog caught up with Morey recently. An edited transcript follows.

What were some of the new takeaways from the conference?

To me there were two big ones: first, the growing interest in sports analytics from within the National Football League—we’re starting to see more and more clubs starting analytics programs and there seems to be an appreciation for how data can improve decision making. And second: the trend of sports teams mining the rich data in social media to get a better understanding of their fan demographics and improve marketing.

When it comes to sports analytics, the NFL is—pardon the pun—a little late to the game. Why is this?

In some ways, it’s understandable. It’s partly a data problem. There’s just not a lot of it available in the NFL because of the short season. There’s also more randomness to the game; it’s not easy to isolate the impact of certain plays on the field on both the team and player level. I would say that the NFL has shown an appropriate amount of skepticism toward sports analytics up to this point. But just as analytics has radically changed sports like baseball and basketball, it has the power to do so in football. In baseball, analytics is used in everything from how coaches implement shifts on the field and to how they use their bullpen, to how general managers evaluate defensive players. Analytics has also transformed basketball: the style of play is more wide open and much more up-tempo.

Arguably there’s a lot more strategy involved in football than in those two sports. How can teams use analytics to make better decisions on and off the field?

Analytics can help provide answers to some of the game’s toughest strategy problems. When should you kick a field goal or go for it on fourth down? When should you challenge a call? When should you call a timeout? Bill Belichick [head coach of the Patriots] is light years ahead of most teams. Belichick has incorporated analytics for years both for on-field play and for decisions around salary caps and contracts.

The Baltimore Ravens has hired a director of football analytics and the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns are also building analytics operations. Do you predict more teams will follow suit?

Absolutely. At this year’s conference we had our biggest football presence ever. We had two entire panels devoted to the use of analytics in football. [Monday Morning QB panel from]Speakers included: Paraag Marathe, the Chief Operating Officer of the San Francisco 49ers, Kevin Demoff, Executive Vice President of Football Operations and Chief Operating Officer of the St. Louis Rams, Scott Pioli, who was most recently the General Manager in Kansas City Chiefs, and Aaron Schatz, the editor of The panels focused on the possibilities of using statistical analysis in game day, draft, and free agency preparation. I see this as a trend that will only get stronger in the years to come.

Let’s talk about social media. How are teams using channels such as Facebook and Twitter to reach out to fans?

This is not my area of expertise, but I will say that through social media, sports teams, leagues, and players can directly engage their fans on a minute-by-minute basis. They can create new marketing concepts and capture data to know their customers better. Social media provides a lot of opportunities but there are also big challenges.

This was the most successful conference yet. What are your plans for next year?

Good question. The speakers were fantastic. The MIT students were, once again, were amazing. I don’t know how we’re going to keep topping ourselves.

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