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.

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.

Weekly Recap: Kirk & the Quake, Social Media in Pro Sports & Baseball Withdrawals

Happy Sunday night from the library!

Between bouts of studiousness, I decided to recap my favorite readings from the week – lots of good stuff in the baseball, social media and college football worlds.

As great as this weekend was in college football (or not great, depending on how you look at it – the guys at The Solid Verbal aptly termed the ‘Bama-LSU showdown the “Lame of the Century”), I have to admit that I miss baseball. Desperately. There is something about it that’s more constant than football.

Sure, no one’s going to sit on the couch and watch baseball games for a whole Saturday, and unfortunately the season isn’t filled with World Series Game 6-style contests. Football provides an exciting burst every weekend for a few months, but it’s nothing like the steadiness of baseball that can occupy your thoughts from March to October.

My grandpa frequently tips me off to interesting articles, including this NPR story by Glenn Stout that touches on those baseball-withdrawal emotions. It will resonate with baseball fans. Take heart, he reminds us: it’ll be back soon enough.

Speaking of baseball, I was lucky to stumble upon a blog series hosted by the Social Media Club. During the first week of every month, they feature posts on a specialized topic, and November was focused on social media use in professional sports.

Wednesday’s post looked into the Cleveland Indians’ social media efforts, specifically their hugely successful Tribe Social Deck promotion, which launched in 2010 (now named the Indians Social Suite). Rob Campbell, former digital media coordinator for the team (talk about a dream job title), detailed how social media impacted the team. Some eye-popping stats:

  • In a sentiment analysis conducted prior to the implementation of their social strategy, they found that online sentiment about the team was 50% positive, 10% negative and 40% neutral. Two years later, an analysis measured a near 80% positive rating.
  • By using a unique approach to social media-based promotions, the team increased its social media revenue by over 125% this year. They offered their Twitter followers and Facebook fans a ticket discount, but offered them a greater discount if they shared it with friends.

I also learned a lot from Kevin Saghy, a public relations and marketing specialist for the Chicago Cubs. His post looked at how the Cubs enhance the fan experience by expanding online relationships; for example, if someone tweeted that they were at their first Cubs game, someone from their PR team would ask for their seat location and bring them a small gift. How cool is that?! It’s awesome, but he stressed the importance of meeting fan expectations before trying to exceed them – something that can be easily forgotten when you’re rushing to make a big impression.

And now for one frivolous item:

I hate to make fun of this face, because I'd freak out if an earthquake happened while I was on live TV. But Herbstreit's earthquake eyes make me laugh.

A few weeks back, after attending College GameDay in Eugene, my roommate Miranda developed a crush on Kirk Herbstreit. She didn’t express interest during the actual taping, but we had ESPN on the tube later that night and she revealed her affections. Our conversation:

Miranda: Who’s that guy on the far right?
Me: Kirk Herbstreit.
Miranda: Kirk Herbstreit?
Me: (jokingly, but knowing she wouldn’t ask for no reason) Yeah. Why, Miranda? Do you have a crush on him?
Miranda: A little bit! (A minute later, after Googling) Oh my gosh, he’s 42!

You can only imagine how adorable she found his reaction to last night’s earthquake in Stillwater, Oklahoma. “His eyes got so big!” she exclaimed. I know this video has made its way around the Twitters today, but I found it hilarious and had to include it anyway. (I’m so glad Yahoo!’s Graham Watson pointed out how long Fowler’s question was to begin with; the first time I watched it, I couldn’t believe how much he rambled. I wouldn’t have blamed Herbstreit for asking him to repeat it, even without the quake.)

If you’d like to divulge your television broadcaster crush (mine is Brian Williams) or share any interesting tidbits or articles you read this week, I’d love to hear!

The Big, Scary Thesis

As a freshman, the Honors College thesis was a semi-intimidating, rather mysterious project that we didn’t have to think about for three years.

Now as a senior, the Honors College thesis is a wildly intimidating, still mysterious project that IS DUE IN EIGHT MONTHS. So start researching.

Gratuitous Duck photo: backup QB Bryan Bennett, who shined vs. Arizona State after taking over for the injured Darron Thomas. Bennett does tweet though: @BryanBennett3.

Dramatic? A little. But still true. As a student in the UO’s Clark Honors College, one of my graduation requirements is to write an undergraduate thesis on some topic related to my major. Since I graduate this spring, I’m in the Thesis Prospectus class this term, which is designed to help us narrow our focus and start the research process.

I’m a public relations major who l-o-v-e-s social media and sports, so combining the two for my thesis seemed natural. That’s how I arrived at my topic: a look at the development of social media policies in college athletic departments and their implications for college athletes’ free-speech rights.

Even the casual fan can’t help but notice that social media is becoming an increasingly important factor in the sports world. Hardly a day goes by when ESPN doesn’t quote an athlete tweet instead of a prepared statement, and fans clamor for re-tweets and mentions from sports stars.

However, there’s bound to be trouble when you let college athletes (students aren’t always known for having the greatest judgment; for example, I’m writing this at 1 a.m. and ate a massive Voodoo doughnut an hour ago) freely use a social platform that allows them to say anything they want in under 140 characters.

More and more schools are implementing social media policies (or “responsible use guidelines”) for their athletes. But do athletes, even though they’re on scholarship and publicly represent the school, deserve to face such restrictions? A 4.0-student who receives a full academic scholarship and participates in, say, the debate team, can tweet anything he or she wants. Are athletes facing unfair treatment?

No, I’m not going to be standing on the street corner, crusading for athletes’ First Amendment rights. But the question fascinates me, especially as a greater number of schools place restrictions on athletes’ social media use.

My prospectus is still in its early stages, but tomorrow I present it for my class and make my first big leap into thesis-dom. It’s still early in the process, and I’m uncovering new research and new angles every step of the way.

How does the intersection of sports and social media interest you? If you have any thoughts or suggestions for my process, or any random thoughts at all, I’d love to hear them! (And in the off-chance that you’re a college sports reporter who’s covered social media-related topics…can I interview you?)

As scary as the thesis is, being an Honors College student is worth it, if only for this photo. When GameDay was in Eugene last week, their production crew used rooms in the Honors College building; as a "thank you" for letting them take over our space, they gave us set tours. This is me in Chris Fowler's usual spot.

Anticipating, Doing, Ending.

No matter how long you anticipate something – a wedding, a birthday, a vacation – that thing always comes to an end. And the end always leaves you with a “where do I go from here?” feeling. Such is the case with my internship at Sports Illustrated, which ended yesterday.

My Oregon-centric cubicle decor (with special guest appearances by a Michael Pineda picture from a recent SI, and two photos of my sisters).

Working at SI had consumed my thoughts from the day I got the internship in mid-March. I remember receiving a call from a lady in Time Inc.’s Human Resources department. She told me that I had been accepted to Sports Illustrated’s internship program, and I think she laughed at how enthusiastic I was while accepting the offer.

When it’s mid-March, “August 5” sounds like lightyears away. It still felt lightyears away when I started work at SI on June 6. But now it’s just another “X” on my calendar (a figurative calendar; Oregon Ducks day-by-day calendars don’t have X’s). The day carried a surreal, last-day-of-school feeling, and leaving was bittersweet. As excited as I am to return home and get back to school, I absolutely loved working at SI. Every day was different, and I was able to diversify my public relations experience. I grew as a person and as a professional, and was lucky to work with a wonderful group of people who graciously offered their support in the future.

From a PR perspective, I learned more at SI than can fit here, so I’ll probably write a few posts over the coming weeks that dive deeper into my experience. I will say, however, that I learned a tremendous amount about social media (and took my first foray into the world of social media analytics) and have a fresh outlook on how to creatively approach media relations. More to come on those subjects and others, but I’m still processing everything.

My friends and I are also in denial about the fact that we only have one week left together in the city. (One of my friends, Chase, has already left. And he gave me a hard time about never actually calling any of my “New York friends” by name on my blog. So, Chase, I hope you’re happy.) Every day, we add five or ten items to our “to-do list” even though we inch closer and closer to our departures. We’ll leave with unfinished business, but it’s an excuse to come back.

Just as I have too many PR lessons to fit into one post, I also have too many good NYC photos/stories/recommendations. So expect a few posts on my favorite places/foods/sights/etc., too.

On that note, it has been two weeks since I last posted. I think pictures could tell the story better than I could (plus I’m feeling too lazy at the moment to write all those stories) so here are three glimpses into the past several days. (And yes, I know one of the pictures is the one of my cubicle, which is also posted earlier. When it comes to WordPress quirks, I pick my battles. And I didn’t pick that one.)

As always, thanks for reading. There’s a lot more to come as I continue processing all I’ve learned and accomplished this summer.

*Also, you should check out my cousin’s band, Brave Chandeliers.

(Almost) One Week Down and Loving It

So much has happened between my last post on Saturday and tonight that I don’t even know where to begin. Eugene, school and finals seem like an eternity ago, but I absolutely love this second go-round in NYC.

I arrived early Saturday morning after taking that trusty JetBlue redeye from PDX. Since I couldn’t get into my building until 8 a.m. (or at least, didn’t want to wake up the RAs before 8), I stopped at the Dunkin’ Donuts near baggage claim  (sorry for two parentheses in the same sentence, but I’m positive it’s the same one my dad and I stopped at when we arrived last summer) and sat for an hour with iced coffee and a copy of the New York Daily News.

On the cab ride into the city, I was pleasantly surprised to find that BOTH of my biggest celebrity crushes, Brian Williams and Jimmy Fallon, currently star in Taxi TV segments.

Sunday was for getting settled, meeting my roommates and timing the walk from my building to the Time-Life Building, where Sports Illustrated’s offices are housed. It takes roughly twenty minutes, not counting my ritual Starbucks stop.

Entrance to the Sports Illustrated office.

My internship began on Monday. I was led to my cubicle on the 33rd floor. On my desk when I arrived: MLB’s 2011 Media Guide (so, yeah, all you MLB beat reporters and PR people – I’m going to start following you on Twitter), a copy of the most recent SI (the Jim Tressel cover at the time), a new notebook, plenty of office supplies and several papers and packets detailing everything I’d need to know as a communications intern at Sports Illustrated. Awesome.

There are six full-time employees on the communications staff, and three interns including me.

My cube. This was taken before I added some pictures and Duck décor.

On Tuesday, I had the thrill of actually sending a tweet from the official Sports Illustrated Twitter account. (Side note – again, sorry for all of the parentheses – SI’s Twitter handle was recently changed from @SI_24Seven to @SInow.) It might not sound like a big deal, but having the chance to combine my passions for social media and sports was very exciting. Now, I’m crafting a few tweets each day to send out based on SI.com content and photos from SI’s Google Chrome app, Sports Illustrated Snapshot.

Speaking of snapshots: this is just a phone picture, but I took it from the room where our Time Inc. intern orientation was held on Monday. There's something very New York-ish about working across from Radio City Music Hall.

Every morning, I attend an SI.com editorial meeting. Most of the editors for SI.com’s departments – everything from MLB to boxing/MMA – meet for a quick rundown of what will appear on the site that day. It’s my job to listen for particular stories or features that would appeal to SI’s Twitter followers, and think of ways to uniquely position the content. We don’t want to just post story after story, but provide a new perspective and ask followers what they think. (And on a major nerd note, one of the hosts of a college football podcast I listen to is at those editorial meetings.)

From a PR standpoint, it’s not only fun to tweet, but also fascinating to see how each tweet is intentionally designed to spark some sort of conversation or plug a certain article on the site.

Other than tweeting, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a program called Critical Mention, which tracks mentions of Sports Illustrated on TV shows. I also track some statistics related to SI’s Twitter engagement and today, I put together an Excel spreadsheet filled with info about various golf blogs.

I’m only four days in, but each day has been busy, fulfilling and fun. Next on my agenda: get out and explore more of New York this weekend.

Since I’m feeling rather deprived of anything but sports news, what’s up in your world?

Finding Value in New Communities

Over the past few weeks at my internship, I’ve spent a good deal of time putting together lists of bloggers who blog about bicycling (both racing, like Tour de France-type coverage, and bike culture, like those people with bumper stickers on their cars that read “my other car is a bike.”)

lance armstrong

One type of cycling blog: the hardcore bike racing enthusiasts.

While this may not seem like a very glamorous task, it’s totally necessary in public relations because it allows us to understand what’s important to cyclists and teaches us more about bloggers we may pitch stories to. But, it can also expose you to some pretty cool niche communities you may not have known about previously.

The bicycling world is filled with passionate cyclists who love to write and I’m learning to really enjoy their work. While I’m not a hardcore cyclist myself, I’m now immersed in this cycling community and am finding some really compelling blogs and writers.

At this point, I’m only listening and learning more about the topics they cover, but eventually I’ll start interacting with them. From a PR perspective, the bloggers might appreciate that I not only understand the issues that concern them, but that I also genuinely enjoy reading their blogs.

Have you had to spend a lot of time focusing on one particular niche community like bike riders? Maybe it was a group of people devoted to a similar cause or who lived in a particular city. Whatever the case, I’d love to know how it played out: did you just read their blogs? Did you develop a personal interest in the topic? From a PR

my other car is a bike bumper sticker

Another type of cycling blog: the bike culture/advocacy writers.

perspective, were you able to build a relationship with them?

And while I love discovering this niche, not all blogs are created equal. In my research, I’ve found a few that I really love, mostly because they’re hilarious or look at cycling from a unique perspective:

  • Bike Snob NYC: Yes, Bike Snob writes a column in Bicycling, but that’s not why I love his blog – it’s because he is irreverent and funny but doesn’t waver from his position that cycling is a serious transportation method. Everything I’ve read has been great, especially his spot-on, amusing analysis of Portland and its biking community.
  • Bike Portland: Here’s a hometown shout-out. Bike Portland consistently ranks really high on every list of biking blogs I’ve seen; it covers local cycling events and issues and has made itself the authority on the topic in Portland (and, it seems, elsewhere).
  • Riding Pretty and Chic Cyclists: I will never be as cool as the ladies who write these blogs, but they do a great job of giving ideas on how to be trendy while being serious about cycling.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. In PR, or in your everyday social media participation, have you ever come across a passionate blogging or online community? Was there value in listening to and eventually engaging with them? If so, what was it?