the spread the (data) science of sports

Sloan recap

Sun 02 March 2014

Ups and downs

This weekend, I attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Sloan is part trade show, part research conference, and part see-and-be-seen affair. Despite the focus of this blog, I attended panels across a wide variety of sports. I'll offer what I saw as common themes across panels and then offer some more specific comments.


Nearly every panel discussed the need to improve the state of injury analytics: forecasting injuries, modeling injury recovery time, and injury prevention. Scott Pioli of the Atlanta Falcons stressed that the human body, not on-field decision-making, was the next really big frontier in analytics. He described how players self-monitor their hydration levels by comparing the color of their urine to a color-coded chart provided by Gatorade that hangs over the urinals in the locker rooms. Given the amount of attention being paid in the tech sector to health and the body, I wouldn't be surprised to see quick movement here.

The fact that so many executives were asking for more analytics in this area undercuts my next point about communication. Instead, as multiple conversations I had with people in sports seemed to confirm, injury analytics are attractive a) because they have immediate implications for the bottom line and b) because there's often no conventional wisdom or a certain way that things have always been done in the league. Thus, analysts are not fighting to be heard.


Similarly, nearly every panel featured a front-office person that stressed that analytics won't make any inroads until people are able to communicate the results of their analyses. On the one hand, I completely agree with this. Knowing how to effectively present quantitative information to non-experts is a skill that few have mastered.

On the other hand, I think this is something of a canard, and a way for skeptics of analytics to push off having to address uncomfortable findings for the time being. Stan Van Gundy, who some thought stole the show at the Basketball Analytics panel, argued that he'd believe analytics as soon as someone would "show [him] the science." Those familiar with anti-science rhetoric will recognize this tactic (as Andy Glockner said, "SVG is anti-vaccine, based on this panel discussion +140"). I'm guessing that the general manager doesn't ask the offensive or defensive coordinator to dumb it down for him or her.

"Heart", "Determination", and "Chemistry"

As much as those of us in the analytics community like to make fun of the cliched "you can't measure heart!" throw-away comments that frequently emerge in these discussions, they won't go away. Panelist after panelist stressed that some of the most important unmeasured things for them was how well a player was likely to fit in with a team, if the player would be able to perform under stress, and so on. As Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders tweeted in frustration, "People, they're called intangibles because they are NOT TANGIBLE."

That being said, we do have scientific fields that study questions like these -- psychology and sociology both study small group behavior, decision-making under duress, and other related topics. If this is an area in high demand, analysts might consider focusing on it more. Successfully answering questions that decision-makers have specifically asked to be answered is a good way to accrue reputational capital and make it easier to tackle questions with more entrenched opposition.

Random observations and summary

SportVU. SportVU and motion-tracking data from basketball were everywhere. I saw many research papers using this data, attempts to mirror the functionality of SportVU in other sports, and had several discussions with NBA team analysts who use the data. It's clear that some of the most advanced analytics are occurring in basketball. That being said, I have such a hard time following the NBA. As Daryl Morey pointed out, there are two things that drive fan interest: a) the uncertainty of the outcome, and b) the importance of the game to the final championship result. Basketball often fails on both fronts; it's a long season with many essentially meaningless games.

Definitions. What people mean by analytics differs wildly. I saw lots of work that was conducted in Excel and I also saw computer vision work using topic models to automatically recognize play types in the NFL.

Uniqueness. It's no question that nearly everyone I talked to still views their sport as a special snowflake with its own set of statistical problems. While that's partially true, I found there was little buy-in with the idea that, in fact, many of these problems are just substantive examples of long-existing statistical problems and that there's no need to reinvent the wheel to study them. That's the entire point of the spread.

Summary. As a whole, the conference was a fantastic way to meet people who do this on a daily basis, have really interesting conversations with people, and get a birds-eye view of sports analytics. The research paper sessions were obviously more informative than many of the panels, but the former lacked the presentation polish of the latter. It's hard for research to compete when the commissioner of the NBA is presenting a few rooms down the hall.

The highlight for me was watching Kevin Kelley, the 'coach who never punts' offer his views on things. The lowlight, unfortunately, was the football analytics panel, which really only featured one 'analytics person', Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats. That panel was moderated by Suzy Kolber and was an unmitigated disaster. I think 95% of the panel was spent setting up straw men of analytics and then robustly knocking them down. Burke offered defended analytics, making smart claims such as that analytics forces us to make our assumptions explicit, but was a minority voice.

Another lowlight was the ESPN panel on the upcoming college football playoff selection committee. That's going to be a mess. Apparently, they "hope" that the selection committee will watch as much football as they can to make their decisions, but they're busy people. Similarly they "hope" that the "football people" on the committee can sway the decisions of the "non-football people" in close calls. Committee members are free to use "whatever information" they see fit to make their decisions. And so on.

I very much enjoyed meeting everyone that I could and my apologies to those that I was unable to meet. Hope to make it again next year.

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