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.

I Love My Ducks: SPREAD THE WORD!

If you’re not familiar with the Oregon Ducks and their fans, you will be after watching this.

Earlier this week, a brilliant group of Oregon students created a video called “I Love My Ducks,” in which they proclaim their love for the Oregon Ducks football team. (Watch the video here; I’m working on embedding it into the post, but there seem to be some problems with Yahoo! Videos on WordPress blogs.)

“I smell roses,” they say, referring to the Ducks’ chances of making it to the Rose Bowl.

Things are not so rosy, however, when it comes to dealing with the Oregon Athletic Department.

The video features our school’s mascot, Puddles the Duck. Puddles is licensed by Disney, and while I’ll admit that I don’t know every detail of the copyright restrictions, the AD pulled the video from YouTube because they were afraid of a call from Disney. They were worried that Disney would be upset that this unassuming group of students would get them in trouble, simply for using the Duck in the video.

What better publicity for your school than to have three typical college guys creating original raps about their intense love of the team. They’re showing off the Oregon logo throughout the video, they’re in front of Autzen Stadium…basically everything about this video screams free publicity.

But all because of Puddles, this video is deemed unworthy by the Athletic Department. It’s too bad they’re keeping the video from attracting fans to their games, bringing traffic to their website and putting more money in their wallets.

Here’s how you can spread the word about this great video:

• Post the video on your Facebook page.
Tweet the link. (Even better, tell ESPN College GameDay to play the video on Saturday, when they feature the Oregon v. Arizona game.)
• Comment on blogs that posted about the video, like Deadspin, The UO Sports Dude, Communication Rhodes, and this blog.
• Become a fan of Supwitchugirl on Facebook; that’s the group that created the video.

Feel free to comment on this post if you love the Ducks and/or this video and if you know of another way to efficiently spread the word about it.

Taking Charge

*UPDATE*: LeGarrette Blount has been suspended for the rest of the football season, and deservedly so.  Read about it here: http://bit.ly/jBnN8.

Some people may think that Oregon Duck fans should automatically be ashamed of their team because of the team’s obscene number of possible uniform combinations.

But thanks to running back LeGarrette Blount, Duck fans have a legitimate reason for embarrassment.  As if the game wasn’t devastating enough (the Ducks didn’t have a single first down in the entire first half), Blount had to go act like a baby after the game.  Watch the video and be horrified (I don’t get why this guy added the Apollo Creed quote at the end, but the rest of the video is good quality):

I know this is not going to be read by huge amounts of people (hey, Hope!), but I want to apologize on behalf of my school.  I’m not sure what the school will do to punish Blount, but if he’s thrown off the team, he deserves it.  Ever since Blount’s punch was thrown, we Duck fans have been publicly displaying our disgust on Facebook.  It’s ridiculous, and we can only hope that our season can be salvaged and that we are forgiven by the rest of the football world.

This punch will probably be analyzed to death in the coming days.  Lots of sports commentators will have lots of questions, but mine is: Where was Oregon head coach Chip Kelly in all of this?  Chip, I know it was your first game as head coach and that you had to endure a tough loss, but you’ve got to get the guy under control.

Boise State’s head coach, Chris Petersen, will emerge as the hero here.  His player, Byron Hout, said something to Blount that prompted him to thrown the punch, and Petersen immediately pulled Hout aside and dealt with him.  Whatever he was saying, he was saying it vehemently.  Chris Petersen took charge.

Without making this a grand, flourishing post about the need for more effective leadership in the world today, I do want to say one thing: everybody’s watching.  How many times do you think that punch has been viewed since it was thrown?  How many people are talking about it this very second?  It made “Oregon” the number one trending Twitter topic for a time last night.

Today, everybody’s watching everything.  Our lives may not be the opening segment of SportsCenter, but people are still affected by what we say, do and think.  I’m sure glad that some of the things I have said to or thought about others did not become viral YouTube videos mere hours after they were spoken or thought.

This was not said to make you feel like a terrible person.  I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer.  It just made me think.  Here’s to hoping next Saturday brings some redemption for the Ducks.