The Sports Nerd’s Dream Weekend

This is my attempt at synthesizing all the stats and mind-blowing words of wisdom that came my way during the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Word has gotten out among the sports nerd community that this is the place to be for conversation about analytics and how they affect the game, the fans, the media and the entire culture of sports. The conference began in 2006, when it was held on the MIT campus, with some sessions literally held in MIT classrooms. Now, it’s held in the Hynes Convention Center and boasts an attendance of 2,200 (up 700 from last year).

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about the conference, but I remember watching Michael Wilbon broadcast PTI from Boston about a year ago because of the conference. I remember thinking, “wow, that sounds awesome.” Anyway, it stuck in my mind and when I was blessed with some professional development funding from the UO journalism school, I knew how I would use it.

This year’s agenda was filled to the brim with terrific panel options and intriguing research paper presentations (not to mention, some of my favorite sportswriters and personalities like Michael Wilbon, Rob Neyer and Jackie MacMullan). Right away, I knew I wanted to be at the Baseball Analytics and Media Rights: Pricing, Power and Competition panels. As the conference wore on, I could sense a shift in my views and interests towards different areas of analytics; that shift guided my selection of other panels. Yes, some were better than others, but they all offered a fresh perspective on analytics and shifted my thinking in some small (or large) way.

I learned more than can fit here, but my big takeaways:

1) Only the paranoid survive.

From media execs to MLB general managers, this was an oft-echoed sentiment. Brian Rolapp, COO of NFL Media, said complacency was the only threat to the stable relationship between sports media entities (such as NFL Media and MLB Advanced Media) and broadcast networks (such as ESPN, Fox and NBC Sports). In order to stay on top of trends – in this case, understanding how sports fans consume media – you must actively seek new, innovative opportunities. The opportunities won’t come to you, and the media landscape – especially in sports, the only area of television that must still be watched in real-time – changes rapidly.

Mark Shapiro, president of the Cleveland Indians, discussed the paranoia that comes with using statistics to analyze baseball. Like with media deals, that paranoia is required if you’re going to stay on top of the latest and greatest advancements. You could be sleeping when the next analytics breakthrough is made, but you’d better know about it first thing in the morning. Shapiro said he wakes up every day, reads about a new trend and thinks, “are we on this, or are we behind?” – and that’s coming from someone who’s bought into analytics for a long time.

2) Analytics don’t tell you everything. You have to account for the psychological element of sports.

In every analytics-focused panel I attended, the discussion invariably turned from a breakdown of analytic advancements in the sport to a reminder of psychology’s place in the analysis. Numbers tell you a lot about a player on the field, but they tell you nothing about a player’s past, his family life or how he fits in a city or with his teammates.

I found it interesting that the person who seemed to champion this the most was Scott Boras – who I always pictured as the icy, conniving agent who sat behind a desk all day, working to secure gigantic deals for clients (okay, I didn’t see it quite that dramatically). However, he displayed empathy for the players’ plight, and seemed to be the biggest champion of sports psychology on the baseball analytics panel. He even said baseball should train and hire sports psychologists to help bridge the gap between statistics and humans.

Psychology factors not only into player evaluation, but scout evaluation. Eric Mangini talked about “evaluating the evaluator” on the football analytics panel. You have to adjust your perception of a scout’s advice when a guy who’s good with defensive backs tells you about a wide receiver.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about psychology’s place in sports. Before the conference, “psychology” to me was a major someone chose when they didn’t know exactly what they wanted to be; now, I have great respect for those professionals because without their input, all the numbers in the world (and not just those related to sports) are meaningless if the human element is not considered.

3) There’s so much happening out there that you don’t even know about. And stuff you think is cool now will be obsolete in a year (or less).

It probably sounds over-generalized, but my ultimate takeaway from the weekend is that you can never be satisfied with accepting things as they are. That’s the complacency Brian Rolapp and Mark Shapiro warned about: Be alright with the status quo, and the most striking innovation may pass, leaving your way of operating in its wake. Endless curiosity is essential if you want to do something great.

Think about it this way: Except for maybe baseball analytics, every panel I attended made some reference to Jeremy Lin; a guy who few had heard of at last year’s conference. Of course, Lin’s story was hard to miss, but he’s emblematic of the fast-paced world of media and sports. The hot topic a year from now is likely something we’re not considering, and our acknowledgement of the “next big thing” will hinge upon our understanding of current trends and industry changes.

A handful of other random observations for the poor souls still reading, 900 words in:

  • Being in New England, I was reminded that “Portland” isn’t always associated with Oregon.
  • I’m a Starbucks devotee, but it’s never bad to mix up the routine. Dunkin’ Donuts needs to come back to Oregon.
  • Every time I said “University of Oregon,” I was met with, “Oh, Nike U” or “Don’t you guys have a lot of football uniforms?” Thanks, Uncle Phil.
  • Having access to an historic baseball park, navigable public transportation and important national landmarks makes Boston one of my Top 5 cities (full list coming at an undetermined point in the future).

Since there was so much to process from the conference, there might be another post or two on Sloan-related topics; I’d like to flesh out my thoughts from a few sessions, especially the media rights panel and its intersection with Mark Cuban‘s discussion of the connection between social media and television.

If you’re interested in analytics, or attended the conference and had a favorite speaker/panel/moment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Twitter and Joe Paterno’s Death: A Lesson for the Individual Media Outlet

I certainly don’t want to step into the complicated web of “how do we remember Joe Paterno,” but the news of his death – unfounded last night, confirmed this morning – taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of thinking before you write or tweet.

I truly learned of Paterno’s death this morning, when a New York Times notification popped up on my phone, but the story really began yesterday.

Mid-afternoon, as I opened Twitter on my phone to tweet about the Oregon basketball win, I was shocked to see so many tweets about how Paterno’s family had been summoned to State College to say their final goodbyes. I hadn’t been following the story, or Paterno’s health, much since the news died down later in November, but I certainly didn’t know that his condition was so bad. Last week, I read the story from Sally Jenkins’ interview with Paterno – the first, and now last time he’d spoken since the scandal – but that was the most I’d read in weeks.

Yesterday evening, as I had TweetDeck open while watching TV, the tweets announcing Paterno’s death started to flood in. I wish I could remember where I first saw the news (I don’t follow @OnwardState, a student-run Penn State news outlet, which first tweeted that he had died), but within seconds my Twitter stream was filled with re-tweets of a CBSSports.com story which also claimed Paterno had passed.

Everyone started offering their 140-character eulogies and I started wondering if Dan Shulman, who was calling the Louisville-Pitt basketball game on ESPN at the time, would have to make his second on-air high-profile death announcement within a year. (They’re hardly in the same category, but last May, Shulman made the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast.)

He didn’t, though, because the report turned out to be false. Minutes after thousands of “RIP JoePa” tweets hit the Internet, Mark Viera of the New York Times tweeted that Paterno’s family spokesman said reports weren’t true. Pretty soon, my stream was a mix of “RIP JoePa” and “RT @markcviera…”

It was a confusing few minutes, but as consensus was reached that the news was false, several writers started offering journalism advice and  perspective on the situation. I didn’t perceive it as intentionally critical – most said something to the effect of “we all make mistakes” – but the sports fan’s relationship with Twitter, which is often “say something as dramatic and witty as possible as fast as you can” probably took precedence over what should have been objective, fact-based information sharing.

(For a detailed run-down of how the misinformation spread, including key tweets, take a look at this Poynter post.)

I’m as guilty as anyone here. I quickly re-tweeted someone who offered a brief “RIP JoePa/thoughts and prayers with the family” tweet. I re-tweeted another tweet which expressed sympathy for Joe Posnanski, the writer who was in the midst of a Paterno biography when all the scandal erupted.

The specific journalism lesson was “don’t run with it until the Associated Press reports it.” As the Poynter article points out, the AP wisely held off until they were absolutely sure Paterno had or had not died. They never reported false information, and look all the better for it today.

More generally, however, I learned a lesson regarding my responsibility, as an individual Twitter user, to dig into a story and make sure it’s correct before I hit the re-tweet button.

Twitter gives all of us – whether we’re paid to write about sports by a major media company or hacking away at our laptops on a college campus – the power to be our own media outlet. Usually, that’s awesome: We can say (or tweet) whatever we want, whether it’s rumors we heard from a friend, comments on a controversial column, or re-tweets of a solid piece of journalism. Wherever we set our computers or pull out our phones, we’ve constructed a mini press box.

Of course, my neck’s not on the line because I re-tweeted false news of Paterno’s death. But I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of double-checking and making sure your news is coming from a confirmed source.

Twitter is the place to be if you’re a sports fan. News, opinion, commentary and banter thrive there every day, but if users – even those who aren’t paid to get the story right – are blindly re-tweeting and taking everything a major outlet says as fact (“If CBS Sports said it, it must be true”), the value is lost.

It can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment. Every element of this story is magnified because of the circumstances under which it unraveled, but emotion can’t obstruct the facts, whether we’re a respected reporter or passionate fan.

*A couple related items:

Clay Travis of the blog Outkick the Coverage came down hard on CBS and its lack of responsibility in reporting. He points out (probably correctly) that had ESPN (which doesn’t have the greatest reputation among sports fans on Twitter) first reported the false news, Twitter would have filled with outrage. CBS, which has terrific college football coverage, looks bad in light of last night, but they definitely aren’t garnering the hate ESPN would have received.

I was intrigued last night by how some sports journalists dispensed relevant reporting advice via Twitter. I’m sure there are more examples (share them if you have some!), but two I found interesting were from Yahoo! college football writer Pat Forde

…as did Kelly Whiteside of USA Today.

GameDay Overtakes the Quad

Awesome = College GameDay setting up on the campus quad today.

Not awesome (from a school standpoint) = My inability to focus on anything besides Saturday.

A view of the GameDay set from the Knight Library. At this point, the "O" hanging from Lillis was only half-completed.

When I emerged from class an hour later, the “O” was finished.
A view from the other side of the set, where the fans will stand.
I have my doubts about how visible the “O” will be on TV Saturday, but it’s going to look awesome on campus for the next few days.

Third Time’s a Charm

From a football standpoint, I couldn’t have picked a better four-year span in which to attend the University of Oregon. Aside from trips to the Rose Bowl and BCS title game, ESPN’s College GameDay came to Eugene not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES in my four-year career. (Or at least, it will have come three times after Saturday.)

In what amounts to a pretty slow college football weekend, the GameDay crew will come to Eugene on the heels of Saturday night’s Oregon-Arizona State matchup. Will it carry the “must-win” atmosphere of last year when they came before the Stanford game? No. (Even though this could be a Pac-12 championship preview, neither team comes in undefeated like the Ducks and Cardinal did last year.) But it’ll still be wildly exciting.

Probably the best part about all of this? It’s pretty much happening in my backyard. While the setting from the past two years – near the Casanova Center with Autzen Stadium in the background – was picturesque and exciting, construction in that area has forced GameDay to our Memorial Quad on campus. It’s just a few blocks from my house, and I couldn’t be happier to avoid an early-morning trek to Autzen. (Sidenote: I’ve never once heard someone refer to our quad as “memorial.” It’s always been ” the quad” to me. Am I the only one who thinks this?)

GameDay host Chris Fowler tweeted a picture of the setting this evening (the tweet was wordless, consisting only of a link to the picture):

Watch College GameDay on Saturday and that’s what you’ll see (minus that white tent). That’s Lillis Business Complex in the back; the hosts will face Knight Library at the opposite end of the quad. (Fowler later tweeted an explanation of the photo for his non-UO fans.)

What astounds me is how the center of the college football universe will be just a few steps away from me on Saturday morning. Is it the world’s most exciting matchup? No. Will most of the country still pronounce it “Ora-gone” at the end of the day? Probably. But for a few hours, college football nation will be focused on rainy little Eugene, Oregon. They’ll see the campus we call home and learn more about the team we cheer for. And all I have to do to be a part of it is roll out of bed and walk two blocks east. That’s pretty awesome.

Is it Saturday yet?

College Football Weekend Recap: “The Pac-12 Sucks” Edition

Since there are so many people writing so many words about college football every weekend, I decided to aggregate some of my favorites in a handy little blog post (that I hope to publish every week this season). I’m doing this partly because I’d like to share what I found intriguing, but mostly because I’d like to hear from others about what articles or blog posts caught their eyes over the weekend.

One overarching theme: The Pac-12 sucks.

At least over the last few months, Pac-12 fans could point to Oregon’s appearance in the BCS title game as proof of our conference’s relevance, but when Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and Colorado all lose (and Washington and USC barely win), our defense against SEC fans is flimsy. It hurt to read, but The Register-Guard‘s George Schroeder spoke the truth about how Oregon’s loss only widened the gap between the Ducks and the truly great college football programs.

“If only the Pac-12’s football teams would start playing at a level befitting the conference’s newfound status,” wrote Stewart Mandel of SI.com, contrasting the league’s poor play with its recent status as a “destination” conference for teams looking to realign. Bruce Feldman, now of CBS after leaving ESPN post-“Free Bruce” movement, made a similar argument, saying that “Phil Knight’s favorite team was short-circuited on a big national stage once again.” Ouch.

Something decidedly more awesome than my favorite conference getting trashed all over the internet (albeit with good reason)? Rice University’s “Marching Owl Band” and the shot it took at Texas A&M‘s intention to move to the SEC. Definitely gives Script Ohio a run for its money as far as creativity is concerned. (But according to Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice, Rice will receive a letter of reprimand from ESPN for the stunt.)

It’s not directly related to this weekend’s action, but here’s an interesting piece from Lindsay Schnell, an Oregon beat writer for The Oregonian here in Portland (I followed her on Twitter before I really started reading her stuff in the paper, so I almost typed “@LindsayRae19” instead of her real name). While in Texas for Oregon-LSU, she dug into the emerging pipeline between high school stars in the state (a HS football hotbed) and the UO, which first sprung up when LaMichael James and Darron Thomas committed in 2008.

Lastly, I’m not as on top of the realignment talks as a good fan should be, but I do think it’s interesting/funny/fascinating that Mark Cuban (best known, obviously, for his appearance as Saturday’s College GameDay guest picker) felt the need to weigh in on the topic. His latest Blog Maverick post implores Big 12 teams to “say no to super conferences” and makes a slightly awkward Big 12-AL East comparison. Best part: the commenter who turns a football-centric post into a chance to whine about being an Orioles fan. “…I basically think we are screwed in the AL East.” Well, good for you.

Those are a few things that caught my eye. I know there are dozens, if not hundreds more pieces out there that were great, so if you read a particularly intriguing piece of college football writing this weekend, please share!

ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel: social networking has changed dynasties and recruiting in college football

Ivan Maisel, a senior writer at ESPN.com and host of the ESPNU College Football Podcast, wrote a very intriguing piece about how college football “dynasties” have more or less met their match over the past several years.

He cites changes in freshman eligibility, an increased emphasis on the passing game and the growing desire among college players to get to NFL as soon as they can. But he makes one other interesting point: that the rise of social media, like Facebook, Twitter and even online sports news sites, have also contributed to the downfall of a dynasty.

Through social media, recruits can see everything that’s happening with every team around the country. Just because they live in Texas doesn’t mean they can’t play in Oregon (I’m looking at you, LaMichael James).

It’s an interesting read, especially if you root for a team that’s getting a chance now that some of the dynasties of the past ten or twenty years are falling:

Amplify’d from sports.espn.go.com
• The media, the Internet and social networking. College football is covered more than it’s ever been. Ask the fans in the SEC for their opinions about Boise State. They’ve got them. Last weekend, for the first time in the history of the game, every FBS team had its game televised. Recruits are more aware of teams outside their regions than they’ve ever been. The ability to follow a team on the Internet has flung open the doors of every program to more people than ever. That means there are more opportunities for players. Coaches are more willing to recruit a broader territory than they once did. Unfortunately for coaches, the Internet is a two-way system. Communication goes out. It comes in, too.
No matter how big a control freak the coach is, he can’t control Facebook and Twitter. They move too fast. The world is spinning faster than ever. The days of dominating week after week, season after season are disappearing. A dynasty is not what is used to be. 

Read more at sports.espn.go.com

“I’d tell someone I was Erin Andrews if I thought it would get me special treatment.”

…or so says Ryen Russillo of ESPN Radio.

Russillo, who co-hosts the Scott Van Pelt Show, was one of several ESPN personalities in Eugene this weekend.

His “Ryen on the Road” blog entry is a highly entertaining play-by-play recap of his time in the Eug. Below is a sample, but the whole thing is worth a read.

Amplify’d from sports.espn.go.com
7:37 a.m.
Game time. Each site presents challenges. In Eugene, they don’t have room for us to park near the show site and even though the game doesn’t start for about 11 hours, a lot of the access roads are already closed. I always feel that something can be worked out if you talk to the right guy. My co-host Brad Edwards mentions to security that we are ESPN Radio. I take pride in working for ESPN Radio, just not when I’m trying to get past security. I’d tell someone I was Erin Andrews if I thought it would get me special treatment. Men in vests with walkie-talkies are never impressed with “radio.”Read more at sports.espn.go.com