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"Geekfest" Draws an A-List Crowd in Beantown

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It's been called "Geekfest," and as ESPN's Bill Simmons pointed out, there were never more like-minded dudes in one room. However what the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference really was on Saturday in Boston was an amazing collection of industry veterans NOT talking to industry veterans as in most conferences. It was a mix of some very smart industry leaders and media types enjoying some very interesting give and take not just about stats (there was plenty of talk about stats) but about some of the key business issues of today and the future in the sports, media and entertainment world to an audience largely of students from across the Northeast, almost 1,000 strong.

Some examples? How about the Colts Bill Polian openly explaining and defending Bill Belicheck's controversial fourth down call against his Colts in the playoffs? Or Maple Leaf's President and GM Brian Burke, as old school as they come, going through the decision-making process on how the entertainment value of the sport has to be taken into consideration in the business decisions he makes for the team? How about a panel where soccer, the NFL and the NBA are discussed in terms of global brands, but of the three speakers only US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati is the one who does NOT speak with an accent? Maurizio Gherardini of the Toronto Raptors and NFL CMO Mark Waller took turns talking about global hoops in quasi-Italian and a very strong British accent. Then there was also Moneyball author Michael Lewis, on his way to L.A. for Oscar Night, letting the audience know that he doesn't think that there is much to the intellectual capacity of most baseball players, an interesting little commentary on the sport which many think is the most cerebral, at least in terms of those who follow it.

Oh there were the stats, with panels like Baseball Analytics, a presentation by BloombergSports on their new products, Basketball Analytics, Coaching Analytics etc etc. But there were also first rate panels on Social Media Marketing, International Expansion and the Future of Sports Journalism, with industry leaders like EA Sports President Peter Moore, Octagon President Phil de Piciotto, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, all of which made for a diverse and pretty interesting day for the business of sports.

But how does a school not known for sports pull together such an "A list," and why, especially when the usual purpose of such events is to pull those in the industry together to listen to others in the industry speak? Well for one, the event is run by chaired by an MIT alum, Rockets GM Daryl Morey who along with Kraft Sports Group Director of New Business Development Jessica Gelman, had the collective vision to set up an event that was different from others, and one that could address what the core of MIT is with regard to sports -- finding a niche that is both analytical in nature but focused on business, and skewed to a younger but just as passionate audience. That is one draw.

The other is the cache of the MIT brand to pull in elite speakers on a Saturday in March. Like the Princeton Sports Symposium in December and the just-launched Kellogg School Sports Business Conference, the event has the cache of an elite institute of higher learning as its title. Not a company in the business or a brand looking for senior market share. A University that is known as a leader of thought, which even those luminaries of the industry would never really associate with the multi-billion dollar business they are involved with. That elite brand carries with it great influence and prestige, especially for a sports brands, teams, leagues and representatives who are so caught up in the day to day that "forward thinking" means how many tickets are left to sell for tomorrow night's game.

It is that "forward thinking" and progressive thought which the industry needs more of, and an event such as the one in Boston seemed to really inspire. At one point the issue was raised that there are "industry summits" in virtually every aspect of business where leaders come together to share ideas, but there is no Davos-like event for sports. Next week, the industry bible, the Sports Business Journal, will convene its annual World Congress of Sport in Los Angeles, an annual opportunity for brands to talk about the marketplace and some of the future in broad terms. However many times such events are guarded, and news is limited because of the nature of competition. Can an institute of higher learning -- MIT, Columbia (which is the only Ivy school with a sports track, in the Graduate School of Business), Northwestern, Stanford -- find a way to create that Davos-like event for the industry on a global basis? Maybe Geek-fest is really the next step in doing so.

Was the audience a bit too junior for many senior level leaders to attend and gain value? Perhaps. Was it too much based on stats and flow charts of jump shots and batting averages? Not really (maybe that's where the event started a few years ago but it has clearly evolved). Was it way too male and lacking in voices from minorities? Maybe, but it had a great international flow that many other events lack. Did it have more than its share of influential media involved? Absolutely, with an audience and panels that included Simmons, Lewis, Henry Abbott, the New York Times' Howard Beck, Darren Rovell, Dan Shanoff, Brian Kenney, the Globe's Shira Springer and many others, there were perhaps more diverse media involved in the day than any other sports-business related conference. Was it worth the time of the industry to participate? Absolutely.

So where does this event go next, or can there be similar events with partner institutions elsewhere in the States or abroad (the Oxford Sports Analytic Conference on Cricket and Football anyone?)? The room was full, the price was right and there was a waiting list for entrants looking to get involved, so the appetite and buzz seem to be in place. The conference leaders and the brand cache can pull in names for panels, and there was a good amount of frank short term buzz-worthy news generated. Maybe it's a franchise for those leaders to look at, maybe it's a year-long case study on specific topics or the ability to rally all industry leaders for both a public forum and a series of private events. Maybe it is now what it should be -- an opportunity to talk about the machinations of sport, and give young people a chance to hear from some leaders and speak to them in a setting that the students can control for a rare instance.

Regardless of the next steps, it is clear that the MIT Sloan event has become both a curiosity for those looking to find a way to rally leaders to actually talk in a closed mouth but cordial field and a platform to expose good works in analytics and data analysis in a billion dollar industry. To have the Pats Jonathan Kraft trading thoughts with Polian, while Cuban and Morey trading ideas and differing on tactics, all on the same panel, was worth the time and effort for anyone who has a passing, let alone business, interest in sport.

Geekfest? Maybe. As someone who was once accused of being part of the "lunatic fringe of sport" there is something to be said for a bit of Geekiness. However as someone who also attends multiple events, it was still a very entertaining day that industry leaders others can learn from and build upon. After all, isn't that what colleges and universities are really supposed to do for all of us? Find ways to inform and inspire and get us out of thinking what we do every day is the best way to do it.

Congrats to all those like-minded dudes. See you next March with an even bigger crowd.

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