2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference – Day 2

Published: March 3, 2014

After a great first day at Hynes Convention Center in Boston, I returned on Saturday morning for Day 2 of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The morning started with a panel about how to launch a career in sports, which included former ESPN writer and current Memphis Grizzlies VP of basketball operations John Hollinger. Some of the most notable points from Hollinger:

  • When the Grizzlies brought in Hollinger, the analytics department was “pretty much his laptop.” Interesting how long it took some teams to start to heavily value basketball analytics.
  • When asked about the most important thing that he does, Hollinger mentioned salary cap optimization. Learning every rule of the salary cap is unbelievably difficult (unless you’re Larry Coon), so it would make sense that knowing every rule and being able to make roster decisions without overlooking even the most seemingly minor detail is overwhelmingly important.
  • In addition, Hollinger also highlighted the ability to determine how data from other basketball leagues translate to the NBA, which allows for a more accurate assessment of talent.
  • In regards to breaking into the industry, Hollinger emphasized not just saying you want to do something, but actually doing it. For advice to others, he said that it’s not as much about trying to do what he did as it is about finding a niche that is under-served.

With nothing basketball related during the 9 AM session, I attended the baseball analytics panel. Baseball is the sport that I grew up playing more than any other, so it was nice to get back to my roots for a bit. After that, I listened to a fascinating debate between David Epstein and Malcom Gladwell in regards to “nature vs. nurture” for athletes; specifically, is genetics or repetition and practice more important for success? Epstein argued on the side of genetics, expressing points such as “if you know an American male between age 20-40 who is 7 feet tall, there is a 17% chance that he is a NBA player.” Gladwell, on the other hand, promoted his 10,000 hours theory, going so far as to argue that “the overwhelming majority of college students could be cardiac surgeons if given a sufficient opportunity.”

After lunch, it was time for the highly anticipated one-on-one conversation between new NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Malcom Gladwell. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

  • Silver says that in the new CBA, players agreed to take lower percentage of revenue, but wouldn’t call it a pay cut since league revenues are growing. Still sounds like a pay cut to me.
  • Silver mentioned a willingness to re-evaluate the NBA draft at some point to try to see if the process can be improved.
  • In regards to “tanking”, Silver disagreed with the notion that teams from a player and coach perspective would ever try to lose, but understands and seems to condone the benefits from a management perspective.
  • The amount that tanking is discussed concerns Silver, and he appears to hope that there is some sort of solution. He likes a lot about the “wheel” draft idea, but he expressed his concern about elite players deciding to stay in school depending on who is drafting where.
  • If Silver could make one revision to the current NBA playoff format, he said that he finds the play-in tournament idea for the 8th seed to be a fascinating one.
  • Silver believes that strong college basketball helps the NBA, and thinks that the heavily debated topic of paying college athletes should ultimately be a concern of his. Silver says that the notion of paying college players should be seriously considered “depending on your definition of ‘paying.'” Gladwell suggested the idea of allowing players to remain in college after being drafted.
  • The discussion about the changing way in which the market is consuming the NBA was a very interesting one. Silver claims that the most generation coming up doesn’t watch as much television, but uses more social media. Their attention spans are also lower; per Silver, the unique viewers of NBA games is increasing, but the average length of time that those people watch is decreasing. He has wondered if a shorter game would make for a better product, but at this point, it would be bad business to shorten the game from 48 minutes to 40 minutes, for example.
  • If Silver could make one change to improve the game, he would increase the age limit to entry. Interesting that this would be his #1 change.
  • An audience member asked about eliminating back-to-backs from the schedule. Silver said that it would be nice and referenced the benefits of sufficient rest, but finding an optimal solution would be difficult, especially given the current length of the season.
  • The owner of the Grizzlies, Robert Pera, has pushed Stern and Silver on expanding internationally, with a key to his argument being the expectation that plane technology will continue to improve and allow for shorter travel time, which is one of the biggest barriers of the idea.

After the Silver Q&A ended, I moved on to a panel about sports betting analytics, and then the final panel of the conference, which discussed managing ownership transitions in professional sports. Panelists included Wyc Grousbeck (Boston Celtics’ CEO), Amy Brooks (Senior VP of the NBA’s Team Marketing & Business Operations), John Henry (Boston Red Sox owner), Tom Garfinkel (Miami Dolphins President & CEO), and Vivek Ranadivé (Sacramento Kings owner).

  • Grousbeck made sure to highlight the commitment from his ownership group to allow him to spend the kind of money he did to build a championship caliber team. He also noted that the Celtics’ championship year was their worst year from a financial performance perspective. Later on, Grousbeck also shared that he mortgaged his house to buy the Celtics.
  • Brooks emphasized the importance of customer feedback in the management of an organization. When Ted Leonsis bought the Washington Wizards, he asked fans what he should change & got over 4,000 responses, which he turned into “101 points of change & got right to work on the list.
  • Good quote from Garfinkel: “”I’ll take angry (fan) over apathy any day because that means they care.” Given the injury woes that the Pelicans have suffered this season, that line resonated with me quite a bit.
  • On a personal level, hearing these representatives near or at the very top of their respective organizations made me appreciate how passionate they all are about their teams. I can only hope that the Pelicans have the same type of dedication throughout their front office as well.

After that panel and some awards, the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference came to a close. I was able to spend the evening at an event hosted by the Bonner family’s Rock On Foundation with many other writers whose work I greatly respect before leaving Boston on Sunday morning (to name a few: Jonah KeriKirk GoldsberryFrank MaddenAndrew Lynch, Amin Vafa, Jacob Rosen, & Ananth Pandian). Overall, this conference was an amazing experience for me, and there won’t be much that can stop me from buying a ticket to the 2015 conference as soon as they go on sale. If you have any other more specific questions about the conference, feel free to send me a tweet with your question!

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