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MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Serious Nerding Out Ahead

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is upon us. Romy will be covering the the latest and greatest in analytical and technological innovation on twitter (@romy_nehme), sharing her IQ envy and letting us know what we missed.

via Wikipedia

There was a time not long ago --2006, to be more exact -- when the NBA was as sophisticated as the US Post, with its sluggish efficiency, dead letter mail and damaged packages. A few people poked their heads under the hood, caught a whiff of the stench from discovering that teams' ticket sales records were no more solid than a flimsy stack of paper and decided that a strategy contingent on preserving and mining such flimsy and opaque records probably wasn't the optimal way of doing things. Eyes lit up, the sweet aroma of opportunity wafted in the air and deals were made.

One of those people was man some affectionately call Dork Elvis, who was just Mr. Dork back then: a young enterprising associate for a consulting company in Boston. The Celtics were the first to hire Morey into the NBA -- turning their ticket sales operations into an inventory-focused, yield management business. Morey tapped powerful brains and the race to cofidying and explaining every player's comings and goings on the court was on.

Born in finance, StratBridge was ported over to sports and its impact on the league's business operations was almost instantaneous. Learning curves tend to be awfully kind when you're just starting out at something and most people around still think that the earth is flat. But even back then, it was no secret that where this kind of information could be most valuable was in applying it to the product on the court as opposed to the mechanism that sold its end product.

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference seems to have shifted its focus more and more to the player management side of the equation as well, leaving business speak for the occasional sponsored panel, like StubHub's "Using Analytics to Deliver a Better Customer Experience - While Adding Value to Your Bottom Line". (Or perhaps my perceptions have shifted as my interests have?)

This weekend, over 2,700 people, let's be honest, mostly vocational and aspiring nerds, will be congregating in Boston for the 8th annual event of its kind. Like rise of Indie bands -- from unknown dingy basement to the big stage and bright lights of a Barclays Center -- the conference has seen a radioactive growth since its modest school classroom capacity days. The embarrassment of cerebral riches packed into two stimulating days of non-stop action is astonishing. Want to learn more about The Three Dimensions of Rebounding? Odds are there are four concurrent panels featuring a professional sports owner, player, coach or senior executive, research papers and a lightsaber show vying for your attention. Not to mention peers from most teams and publications debating the valuation of first round picks and teams' frugality in pulling the trigger around this past NBA Trade Deadline in the hallway.

As is the case with almost all things initially shocking or controversial, sports analytics has made its way inside more cushy layers of culture right into the gooey mainstream of even the stodgiest of sports institutions. We don't refer to analytics as us vs. them anymore, and frankly, those who still cling to their archaic "gut instinct over anything" principles are finding that position less and less fruitful for their careers. Still, no one is suggesting teams program cyborgs to execute against a coach's 0s and 1s, only that coaches and players be open to assimilating information that can be provide a serious competitive advantage in a landscape where talent alone often isn't, anymore.

How close are we to claiming analytical smarts? Despite the proliferation of experts and wannabe experts cropping up over the past 7 years, Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry was kind enough to politely remind us that we haven't even sniffed the promised land yet.

For years, we have talked about "advanced stats" when what we were really talking about was slightly savvier arithmetic. That's going to change, whether we want it to or not. Don't get me wrong -- metrics like points per possession and PER have significantly improved the analytics discourse surrounding basketball. Still, there's a tremendous amount left to do. And given these vast haystacks of newfangled player tracking data, we're in desperate need of similarly newfangled needle-extraction techniques.

Sadly, as the best data sets become harder to acquire and the computational requirements more intense, the days of bedroom analytics might be numbered.

And the venerable Mr. Tufte (a panelist at this year's conference that I'm stoked to see), known as Mr. Data Visualizations in academic circles, seems to agree.


And that's what's most exciting! Zach Lowe had the scoop on the Raptors' extensive game and player modeling efforts last year, and more recently, Kirk Goldsberry took us into the minds of the creators of Data Ball, the Next Frontier. The heaviest lift of all is translating theory into practice (the road between research and policy is fraught with detractors, swiftly swatting an idea out of the realm of possibility with little regard for its potential real world benefits).

NetsDaily faithful: peruse the conference schedule and let us know what makes you tingle in excitement. It doesn't matter if you're allergic to numbers or well versed in statistic and beyond, there's room for everyone at the table.

And stay tuned for a few more pieces about the conference and some of the key players making waves in the industry!