MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Review

MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

2,700 people geeks descended on the Boston Convention Centre for the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Since the conference was launched 7 years ago I have always wanted to attend. Although videos of the conference have been published online for the last number of years there is nothing like being there.

From a personal point of view the biggest advantage of being there was to finally meet face-to-face with people I had only every spoken to on Twitter/Skype for the last number of years. Finding anybody proved a lot harder than I had thought it would be. The conference centre is massive and trying to recognise somebody from their Twitter profile pic is not the best method. (Especially @SimonGleave and his coffee cup!!).

Revenge of The Nerds

The first panel of the day was a who’s who of Sports Analytics Celebrities; Mark Cuban, Nate Silver, Michael Lewis, Paraag Marathe & Daryl Morey. Needless to say it was a packed house and it was standing room only about 15 minutes before they took the stage. Michael Lewis chaired the panel and asked everyone what life events had got them to this stage. It was remarkable how ‘lucky’ and serendipitous each persons story was to arrive at the forefront of Sports Analytics. From a learning perspective there wasn’t too much to learn from this panel it was more entertaining than educational. In a way it was a shame that these 5 ‘super geeks’ had to share an hour between them, but as an opening of a conference it was a good start.

Luck – Michael Mauboussin

Michael Mauboussin wasn’t somebody I had come across before but after listening to his presentation I was fascinated and immediately went out and got is book, The Success Equation, Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports and Investing. After the 5 super geeks opening remarks about how luck had played such an important role in their career this presentation showed how important luck is in sport and something that is probably underestimated by most analysts and coaches. I really do recommend you go out and get this book. I’m only a few chapters in but it makes you think differently. Reading this and the Signal & Noise by Nate Silver are the best 2 books in the area of analytics I have read since Moneyball.

It’s Not What You Said, It’s The Way You Said It!

The most common theme running through the whole conference was the need for analysts to be better communicators. In fact the second panel I attended was Data Visualization and had some very experienced Data Visualization experts, especially; Joe Ward, Sports Graphics Editor, New York Times & Ben Fry, Fathom. Looking back over my notes I think every panel talked about the need for analysts to be better communicators and presenters of their findings. It’s why I feel so strongly than when looking at skills to learn as a graduate you should be looking at Data Visualization software and learning from the type of work being done by Joe Ward in the NY Times.

Soccer Analysts Panel

The Soccer Analytics Panel was chaired by Marc Stein of ESPN and had Blake Wooster of ProZone and Chris Anderson of the excellent Soccer By The Numbers Blog on the panel. Chris is also about to launch a new book (The Numbers Game: Why Corners Should Be Taken Short, Teams Are Only As Good As Their Worst Players, and Changing the Manager Doesn’t Change Much), without reading it I know you should get it. They spoke briefly of the barriers and reluctance still in football to fully embrace analytics. In general I thought the conversation was useful and is worth a look once the video goes live. There have been others who have reviewed the panel in more detail and I recommend you check them out here and here.

Final Thoughts

Although the conference was thoroughly enjoyable, the cost to attend something lie this is considerable when you’re funding it yourself, which I did. The ticket alone set me back almost $600, add in flights and accommodation and it adds up to a serious commitment. And as good as I found it I couldn’t help think that there was very little concrete learning I could take away and that was not just my opinion, most people I spoke to said the same thing. That’s no fault of the conference I suppose. Asking an expert to distill a lifetimes learning into 15 minutes on a panel is very difficult if not impossible. The whole experience left me with the following thought if conferences are a poor learning environment what is the best way to up-skill and learn new skills. The job is the best place to practice but not necessarily the best environment to learn new skills, especially in emerging fields. So after university what is the best way to learn new skills?

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