Closing The Door On The 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

I was lucky enough to head to Boston this weekend for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and, in case you missed it, filed these two reports:

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Day 1: Ambition And Curmudgeons

Chemistry matters. Perhaps the most interesting conclusion of the first research presentation was the effect that roster continuity can have on NBA playoff success. While there is no statistically significant tie to continuity and regular season wins, keeping the same team intact (for the most part) can add an extra few wins to your postseason ledger. Obviously this doesn't lead to any sort of black-and-white "DON'T MAKE ANY MOVES!" conclusion, but it does suggest that there is value in not making moves you don't have to make. [...]

The Internet has been huge. As James put it, "I was basically blogging before people were blogging." In his first four years writing his abstract, selling it through an ad in the back of the Sporting News, he never once sold even 1,000 copies. His trajectory picked up after a Sports Illustrated profile, but he was still having only so much of an impact after a decade. But in the last decade, the Internet has been very, very good for both James and the proliferation of sports statistics. The reasons are obvious: 1) It is so incredibly easy to find like-minded individuals in the Internet age, and 2) wow, is there so much data readily available today. Hell, Jeff Luhnow referenced Fangraphs.com during the "Baseball Analytics" discussion. That alone says something. It's a good time to be a nerd, and that was constantly reaffirmed on the conference's first day.

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Day 2: Comedians And Overlords

Behold the Flying 20. Back at "Football Analytics," while Roth was begging to dump the 40-yard dash forever and always, Marathe pointed out that there does appear to be a drill better suited for evaluating receivers than the 40: the "Flying 20," which is the second half of your 40, once you have reached full speed. He said it will tell you a lot about their ability to separate from a defender. I personally would have to think that acceleration time (the first 20) would still matter, too, but it was an interesting point, one that I am sure will be discussed at Football Outsiders.

ESPN is by far the best thing going for sports statistics today … and also kind of the worst. Their influence was inescapable. The Worldwide Leader in Sports had employees on every panel, banners and tables in the hallways … they were omnipresent. And in some ways, that is fantastic. The bottom line is that analytics are not exactly an amazingly profitable topic but the company is pursuing it anyway, in part because it is good for the fans. To be sure, without ESPN's (and, in particular, Bill Simmons') influence, the conference would not have grown at its current near-exponential rate (from 175 attendees five years ago to 2,200 with a waiting list this year). Every nerd should appreciate what ESPN has done in this regard. At the same time, however, there was also an inescapable heavy-handedness at play, both in the omnipresent nature of the ESPN logo and in the way fans have been pummeled by new ESPN measures like Total QBR and the new college Basketball Performance Index (BPI). The approaches to these measures has been rather sound -- ESPN's analytics team, led by Dean Oliver, discussed the makeup of and lessons learned from the QBR rating in a panel Saturday afternoon -- but the delivery of these measures was so forceful, so absolute ("This is better than any measure you've ever seen, and you must use it") that it rather quickly turned off much of its target audience, nerd skeptics. When you are omnipresent and influential, you can get away with this, but it is not difficult to shift from benefactor to overlord, and ESPN toes the line every day. Still, their influence on this conference was almost certainly a net positive.

It's pretty clear to me at this point that a) basketball analytics have simply caught fire, and b) football still has a ways to go. Honestly, from what I could tell, the football discussion has kind of stagnated a bit -- plenty of really interesting conversations to be had, but no major breakthroughs in terms of the ways fans watch the game. (And no, Total QBR is not an amazing breakthrough, even though it really is a pretty nice measure.) I think there's still momentum, just judging by the number of people who stopped to say hi to Aaron Schatz over the course of the weekend, but there is certainly still work to be done.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping to get the ball rolling for a College Football Analytics panel at SSAC in the future, but we'll see how that goes.

Anyway, fun weekend. Now it's back to work.

(Note: apologies for the recent lack of Study Hall posts. I've been working behind the scenes to set up this year's 2012 football previews, and it's been quite a bit of work. I'm pretty sure you're going to like the way we do the profiles this year, though; I know I do. Hopefully it will be worth the absence.)

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