Every year, MIT and ESPN bring together some of the biggest and brightest minds in sports. At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, new ideas about how to use modern data and analytics to enhance to quality of sports, both on and off the field. From improving player performance to tracking sports sponsorship, analysts, athletes, and chief officers shared where they thought the industry was going.
Panels covered a variety of sports and a variety of topics. I tried to go to as many as I could. Below are brief summaries and key takeaways from each session. What was your biggest takeaway? Feel free to share in the comments below!
Innovators and Adopters
- Shane Battier, Former NBA Player and Basketball Analyst for ESPN
- Michael Lewis, Columnist and Author of Moneyball and The Blind Side
- Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets
- Jeff Van Gundy, Former NBA Coach and NBA Analyst for ESPN
- Jackie Macmullan, Columnist for ESPN
This panel showcased the mindset of coaches and GMs when looking to fills on their teams, specifically related to the NBA. When you have a team of 1-3 stars, you need to find the right tools and players to enhance their play. Enter Shane Battier, a student of analytics and one of the most efficient players in basketball. Players need to understand the game and “approach it with a certain kind of intelligence.” Remember, with analytics, it’s not about what you know, it’s what you can impart on coaches to implement.
How Analytics Change the Game for NFL Club Websites
- Alissa Lieppman, Director of Club Digital Strategy for the NFL
I had a lot of fun at this panel. Web analytics are where I specialize in and Alissa Lieppmman did a great job of explaining how she implements strategies into helping NFL teams get the most out of their websites. Teams want to know how they compare to others in the league, so the NFL develops “scorecards” to show how they’ve done year-to-year and how they compare to other teams. The focus of web analytics has shifted from traffic to engagement. It can be controlled. As a result, create rich content, share appropriately, and when gathering results, look at what to track and turn it into a visual indicator to make it easier to digest.
Three at the Back: Accelerating the Pace of Soccer Analytics
- Chris Anderson, Managing Partner at Anderson Sally
- Angus McNab, Head of Content Distribution in North America for Opta/PERFORM GROUP
- Michael Niemeyer, Head of Match Analytics for FC Bayern
- Ravi Ramineni, Performance Analyst for Seattle Sounders FC
- Andrew Wiebe, Writer at MLSsoccer.com
As a newer fan to soccer, I was really interested to gain some perspective into some of the brightest minds in the sport. Soccer has gotten more technical as technology has improved, and this has allowed teams to make player adjustments more effectively. However, analytics in soccer has been prepared more for the media, and is not in-depth enough for teams. And because margins of victory are so close in soccer, this data is extremely important. One thing to keep an eye out for: improved player tracking and where players go around the field.
Commissioner’s Perspective: 1 on 1 with Rob Manfred
- Rob Manfred, Commissioner of MLB
- Brian Kenny, Host on MLB Network
Rob Manfred has some big shoes to fill as he takes over MLB this year. He shared some of his big ideas this weekend at SSAC. With pace of the game, he wants to take the dead time out of baseball and align baseball with pace of society. The use of tech in baseball media will also increase as well. He aims to develop MLB’s apps and streams to make them more stat-friendly. Another major point was that he aims to continue to grow the game internationally and while the number of teams right now are set, there could be some outside of American borders in Canada or Mexico with time. I’m excited to see how the game evolves.
Sports Science: Performance Analytics
- John Brenkus, Creator and Host of ESPN Sport Science
- Elena Delle Donne, Guard/Forward for the Chicago Sky
- Joe Rogowski, Director of Science and Research for the Houston Rockets
- Leslie Saxon, Professor of Clinical Medicine at USC
- Tom Haberstroh, NBA Analyst on ESPN
Sports Science is a very popular segment on ESPN. It is becoming more and more vital in sports today to understand how a player’s body works. A quote I took away from it was: “In 5 years, there will be 2 types of teams: ones that embrace technology and ones that lose.” Look at more numbers, such as player efficiency, and judge the fatigue or performance of a player and what’s causing it, other than simply using something like minutes played. Assess athlete technique and make sure they are not hurting themselves because they are playing the fundamentally wrong way.
Commissioner’s Perspective: Growing Soccer with Don Garber
- Don Garber, Commissioner of MLS
- Grant Wahl, Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated
Soccer is making a massive push to become as relevant in America as the other big 4 sports. Garber wants to make MLS one of the faces of world soccer and a place where American players can grow and excel. Despite not getting the World Cup in the US in 2022, he still hopes to embrace technologies and grow the game. The MLS has tried to model their growth similar to that of the NHL: creating rich content and engaging with fans to draw in expanding audiences. It was also interesting to hear how MLS offered to be the “guinea pig” for technology in league play, such as using GoPros or goal-line replay.
Sharing, Liking, Streaming: The Future of Sports and Media
- Marie Donoghue, Executive VP of Global Strategy and Original Content at ESPN
- Jonathan Kraft, President of The Kraft Group
- Adam Silver, Commissioner of the NBA
- Bonnie Bernstein, VP of Content and Brand Development at Campus Insiders
Sports media is constantly evolving, and leagues are looking for new ways to engage with fans and monetize their investments. An idea Adam Silver mentioned was to use Twitter to share highlights, and then give fans the option to purchase the ability to watch the game. In terms of content, outlets are looking to use more data to create stories and engagement, encouraging athletes to interact on social media, and monitoring all media in today’s 24/7 news world.
Career Panel: What’s Your Game Plan?
- Kristie Blasi, Senior Director of the Stats & Information Group at ESPN
- Megan Morgan, Associate Commissioner for Communications for the AAC
- Andy Rentmeester, VP of Sales Planning & Analytics at MSG Sports
- Evan Wasch, VP of Global Basketball Strategy for the NBA
- Mike Zarren, Assistant GM of the Boston Celtics
- Matt Sebal, President at KORE Software
Young professionals are always looking for ways to get into the industry. One thing the panel could not stress enough were internships. As your career starts off, look for that real-world work experience to get out of the classroom and show what you’ve learned. Next, do something outside of work and the classroom. Do you have a blog? Have you developed a passion and done something with it? Lastly, another critical piece mentioned is that when interviewing somewhere, do your homework. Know what the job is about, who works there, and have questions ready.
Finding the Digital Fan
- Amy Brooks, Executive VO of Team Marketing & Business Operations of the NBA
- Mike Derezin, VP of Sales Solutions at LinkedIn
- John Forese, SVP and GM of LiveAnalytics
- Roland Lange, Senior Manager of the Sports Partnerships Group at Youtube/Google
- Jennifer Van Dijk, Senior VP of Digital for Wasserman Media Group
- Ben Shields, Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management
In today’s age, it is easier to track your target demographic than ever before. Tools like Google Analytics can show where your fans visit, for how long, and if they complete the desired action you want them to. Social media tools like LinkedIn Premium are huge in B2B selling, as they allow you to find EXACTLY who to talk to in an organization. In regards to content, understand what your fans find relevant. Also, don’t be afraid to use photos and videos on native platforms (Facebook Video) to deepen the level of engagement. Lastly, when creating sponsored content, get in your fan’s face. Who to target and when is key to success. This was probably the panel I got the most out of so unfortunately I can’t share everything I learned.
Poets and Quants: How Analytics Has Changed Sports Journalism
- Robbie Allen, Founder & CEO at Automated Insights
- Howard Beck, Senior Writer at Bleacher Report
- Carl Bialik, Leader Writer at FiveThirtyEight
- Peter King, Editor-in-Chief at The Monday Morning QB
- Dan Shanoff, Media Industry Consultant
As the product on-the-field changes, how can those covering the game off the field use analytics to evolve what they do? Analytics are a tool in a journalist’s toolbelt; they help you become more educated in your subject matter. When reporting, make sure to not overwhelm readers with numbers. Use stats that are relevant and think about turning them into visuals that people can share online and understand. Peter King said “Have an open mind.” Don’t limit yourself because you might not find the right conclusion in a certain set of numbers. Use different ones and think outside the box.
Changing on the Fly: The State of Advanced Analytics in the NHL
- Tyler Dellow, Consultant for the Edmonton Oilers
- Kyle Dubas, Assistant GM for the Toronto Maple Leafe
- Damon Eakins, Former Coach of the Edmonton Oilers
- James Mirtle, Journalist for The Globe and Mail
- Frank Provenzano, Strategic Consultant for The E15 Group
- Katie Baker, Staff Writer for Grantland
Hockey has been a little late getting to the advanced analytics table. Now, the NHL has embraced them, using their updated stats page as an example. The average hockey game is 3-2 and with a high level of parity, getting the right players on the ice at the right time is critical. When gathering these numbers, make sure and put them in terms coaches can understand and utilize. The game is evolving, so coaches and teams should as well.
Measuring the Impact of Branding & Sponsorship
- Chris Granger, President of Sacramento Basketball Holdings
- John Harper, Senior VP of Consulting for Wasserman Media Group
- Sam Kennedy, Executive VP and COO of the Boston Red Sox
- Brian Lafemina, Senior VP of Club Business/Corporate Development of the NFL
- Amy Latimer, President of TD Garden
- John Walsh, Former Executive Editor of ESPN
Sponsorships and athletics go hand in hand. When done right, they lead to a win-win relationship. How can you show these sponsors they are truly getting their money’s worth? Be transparent with your sponsor, come up with a joint strategy for success and understanding, and track results as it progresses. Also, sponsors are sponsors all year, both during the season and offseason. Once a season ends, that past year’s record is wiped clean. The relationship is what matters and maintaining a good relationship is keep to growing a sponsorship.
The Future of the Game
- R.C. Buford, General Manager of the San Antonio Spurs
- Brian Burke, President of Hockey Operations of the Calgary Flames
- Scott Pioli, Assistant General Manager of the Atlanta Falcons
- Nate Silver, Statistian, Author, and Founder of FiveThirtyEight
- Andrea Kremer, Chief Correspondent of Player Health & Safety of NFL Network
In a panel consisted of “1 ring, 3 rings, 5, rings, and a guy that correctly predicted every state in the 2012 election,” it was an entertaining discussion between old school and new school minds. First, when it comes to analytics, don’t assume that just because you can’t measure something that it’s unimportant. Also, proper interpretation is key. “Analytics are like a lamppost for a drunk guy; great for support but not necessarily for illumination.” Next, the average athlete will continue to grow and be stronger. Adjustments need to be made to learn about stressors for athletes or to adjust where players play, such as increasing hockey rink sizes. Last, in terms of gambling, as fantasy sports grow bigger, there’s more focus on individual performance than team performance. Leagues need to face these issues head on and avoid corruption.