I recently had the pleasure of joining several of my sports-nerdiest colleagues from the Advanced Analytics team at Alteryx to attend the MIT Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference in Boston.
This event, founded in 2006 by Daryl Morey, President of Basketball Operations for the 76ers, and Jessica Gelman, CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, has since become one of the premier sports analytics events in the world, bringing together industry professionals, academics, and sports nerds like ourselves, to share insights and ideas about the intersection of sports and data analytics.
Since its start in 2006, the MIT Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference has provided reflections and insights from speakers for a wide variety of topics, including:
- The advent of social media as a key marketing and engagement medium in sports
- The wide adoption of analytics in multiple sports
- Transforming the entertainment product that leagues and franchises deliver to their fans
This year was no different. The advancements in sports analytics have progressed many areas, with remarkable applications of the latest modeling methods and tech. However, there are other areas where there is still opportunity for growth, for greater inclusion, and for deep reflection on the future of the sports we love.
Sports Analytics Pioneers and Innovators
The competitive analytics content was deep and compelling. Talks included sessions on roster optimization, player position geospatial modeling, and health & performance science. Sports analytics in these arenas have improved by leaps and bounds over the years, but wide adoption has been slow and highly inconsistent.
Like many organizations grappling with analytics transformation, many sports analysts are still fighting the battles on how to use analytics, and how to gain trust in the methods.
One panel, Moneyball: 20 Years Later, featured two of the best-known names in the world of sports analytics, Bill James and Michael Lewis. Those that know these two will understand why the nerd and the sports nut in me were both giddy at the chance to hear these two speak.
For those unfamiliar, James is widely known for pioneering his Sabermetrics approach to baseball analytics in the 70s and 80s. Michael Lewis is the author of the seminal sports analytics hit, Moneyball, which accounts how the GM of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, used the very same concepts to turn the A’s into a contender by shifting focus from traditional measures of player performance, and instead investing in the building blocks that are most associated with winning games.
During this session, James reflected on how difficult it was to convince decision makers in baseball that they were focusing on the wrong stats, and that the best ways to build a winner weren’t understood and were being underutilized. Initially, baseball GMs and analysts either ignored or outright dismissed his claims.
Over the years these principles were slowly adopted, but even by the time Moneyball was on shelves in 2003, owners of teams were still shocked that their scouts and GMs were still not incorporating analytics.
Lewis added to this by sharing a phone call from some time after his book had been published. An owner had reached out to him, lamenting that he had heard about the book, and its core concepts, by investors in his team and not his own analysts and coaches.
Perhaps those financial analysts were familiar with his earlier work, Liar’s Poker, which is widely considered one of the most important books ever written about Wall Street and is basically required reading at many top trading firms, but to this owner, that didn’t matter. To this owner, it was incomprehensible that baseball had fallen so far behind minds like James and had missed what Lewis found fascinating enough to jump from Wall Street to baseball.
This underlines where we currently stand with sports analytics. We hear about advanced analytics that can show things like the path a football took, or initiatives like FIFA’s stadium+ that bring on-demand real- time information to fan’s fingertips. However, these are pocketed initiatives that provide a ton of value, but don’t address the underlining issue.
The Future of Sports Analytics: Moneyball for All
This session, and many others, underlined that we are still in a very familiar spot when it comes to competitive sports analytics. Even though sports analytics is set to grow to over a $6B industry by 2030, there is still significant misunderstanding, distrust, and inequity in both inclusion and application of analytics. While many teams are competing on analytics, both on the field and as businesses, many have either been left out by choice, or by access.
This is the most apparent to women who attend the conference. A vast majority of attendees are male, and the speakers are almost entirely men. This inequity was recounted by the FiveThiryEight article by Christie Aschwanden, an attendee of a previous MIT conference. “My heart sank a little when I saw only one of 30 speakers listed on the preliminary agenda was a woman,” she said, “One of the 23 people attached to a finalist research paper was a woman, and one of her male colleagues presented the paper.”
The attendance at the 2023 conference was certainly improved, but this does underline where sports analytics needs to grow as we near the 2030s. As is the case with many industries, the path forward and upward for sports analytics is democratization of analytics across organizations, teams, and leagues.
The greatest advancements won’t come from new technologies but from putting tools and methods in the hands of more fans and more analysts. A focus on access and outreach will be key in growing analytics into additional sports, and growing interest and excitement for analytics outside of the largest leagues, and to provide access to Moneyball for All.
The Alteryx representatives at this conference, and our company as a whole, are excited to participate in this growth in sports analytics. There is a long way to go to democratize these methods across teams and sports, but we look forward to growing together. For more information into Alteryx in sports analytics, check out this great content.
Editor’s Note: Chris deMontmollin also helped to author this article.