MIT Sports Analytics 2019 Review

Alex Egol – RSAC Writer

Happy spring everyone! Sorry for being offline for so long, it has been a busy past few weeks at RCS, with Finals and Spring Break. Before that, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with my father this March. So, I want this article to share the experience I had there, especially since you are looking for a deeper understanding of sports analytics.

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was founded in 2006 by Daryl Morey (GM of the Rockets) and Jessica Gelman. The conference is hugely important in the field of sports analytics. I was recently listening to Measurables and reading Basketball Analytics by Stephen Shea, and I encountered references to the SSAC, making me realize again how lucky I was to go again this year.

The conference is made up of sessions, which are usually panels of 3-5 people and one interviewer or host. The sessions last about an hour each. The conference lasts two days.

The first session I attended was a panel on social justice featuring rapper Meek Mill and Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin. It was strange to see these two loosely-connected-to-sports people talking about a non-sports- related issue. Nevertheless, it was incredibly interesting hearing Meek Mill discuss his suffering under Pennsylvania’s broken criminal justice system, and Michael Rubin discuss the need for reform and his (as well as Meek’s) activism aimed at nationwide reform. I am going to jump to a panel that happened Saturday (the next day) because it is also not super related to sports. It was a discussion between David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell called Making the Modern Athlete. Before I talk about this panel, I want to give you some background.

About five years ago, Malcolm Gladwell and David Epstein had a debate. Malcolm Gladwell, fresh off of establishing his famous 10,000 hours rule, believed that success at something was a product of time spent doing that thing. David Epstein didn’t agree. Five years later, David Epstein has released a book called Range, a collection of case studies guided by a thesis that “The best way at excellence at X requires doing much more than X.” Gladwell now agrees with Epstein.

The two prolific social scientists brought their expertise into the realm of sports, using athletics as context for their discussion of human activities as a whole. When talking about the value of cognitive diversity, Epstein pointed us to Roger Federer, who was able to still become the GOAT even though he was not one track minded like one might expect; he played soccer for much of his young life. When talking about the need to stop focusing so much on precocity, Epstein brought up U-6 Travel Soccer teams. He believes, and his book provides evidence, that beginning an activity at such a young age can ruin one’s love for what they are doing, and thus set back the person doing it.

A theme throughout the conference, which I particularly enjoyed, because I’m not just interested in sports analytics, but also politics and psychology-related stuff, was the persistent connection between nitty-gritty analytics content and relevant global ideas like social science and criminal justice (as already discussed) as well as privacy, mental health, and the role of social media in 21st century life.

Privacy was brought up in the panel on tracking data. The panelists explored the benefit of detailed body tracking for analytics – they used tracking data to improve their metrics for shooting in basketball and goalkeeping in soccer, for example. On the other side, they explored the potential risk of allowing players’ private medical data to become accessible to sports analysts. Players don’t want their heart rate in key situations, for example, to be used by GMs to judge their clutch-ness, but, unfortunately, according to Chris Capuano, it already has. Looking at the recent news on Facebook and Huawei, it was really interesting to see analytics connect to a much larger global issue, and to have that same question of privacy discussed by professionals in front me. It was great.

Mental health came up in the panel with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and podcast legend Bill Simmons. The two talked extensively about NBA players’ mental health struggles. Looking at the Isaiah Thomas saying, that championships are “made on the bus,” Silver correctly noted that players nowadays go on the bus, and put on their headphones, or scroll through Instagram. I thought it was fascinating to think about how, despite fame, money, and success, several NBA players, seemingly at a rate more than regular people (based on the way Silver described it), struggle with the same problems as everyone else: social media addiction, depression, self-medication, and constant insecurity. Then, in the Do Athletes Need The Media? Panel with Larry Fitzgerald and Co., a similar discussion occurred, centered around media attention and the negative impact it has on athletes’ private lives. There was a focus on the need to create deep personal relationships. I thought it was a great discussion, relevant, in any context, to the times we live in.

To wrap up, I’m going to finish with some big takeaways. 1) I left the conference with an expanded perspective on the intersection of analytics and other issues. 2) I left the conference with important new knowledge about statistics from reading college and grad student poster boards, and hearing panels on Football analytics and general management in basketball. 3) Most importantly, I left having made personal connections with people from sports analytics companies, from start-ups to Draft Kings, and, as a result, with a new understanding of what it means to work in the business of analytics. These three types of learning experiences allowed me to leave MIT Sloan feeling really rewarded, inspired, and ready to get back to work on more analytics. Until the next article, in which we’ll get back to our usual style of work!

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