It has been dubbed Dorkapalooza.
It has been called "geeks getting in the game".
And during the main session -- which featured such sports heavyweights as Mavericks' Owner Mark Cuban, Colts' President Bill Pollian, ESPN's Bill Simmons, Patriots' President Jonathan Kraft and Rockets' GM Daryl Morey in a panel moderated by NY Times bestselling author Michael Lewis -- Simmons called it "the biggest collection of dudes in one room".
In its fourth year, one thing is clear, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has become the preeminent sports conference. The event was held in Boston's Seaport Convention Center and had over a thousand attendees with over 400 more on the waiting list.
This year's event was highlighted by the aforementioned panel entitled "What the Geeks Don't Get: The Limits of Moneyball?" and featured some fascinating debates about the limitations of analytics in sports.
Particularly interesting and relevant personally was a discussion between Pollian, Kraft and Simmons regarding Belichick's infamous 4th and 2 decision. Pollian and Kraft both supported Belichick's decision while Simmons' remains staunchly against the decision. Simmons' main argument centers on the Patriots poor use of time outs and play calling preceding the 4th and 2 and less on the decision itself, but he remains adamant that it was the wrong decision.
During this discussion, Pollian made the point that using statistics to make this type of decision is irrelevant since there are so many factors that can't be taken into account by the statistics. Pollian is actually citing something called "reduction bias" where in order to solve a complex problem, one reduces the number of variables to make the situation easier to solve. But what Pollian fails to acknowledge is the importance of using numbers to help you make these types of decisions. Of course numbers are not going to definitively tell you what is right to do here, but in this case the numbers supported that there was an option besides punting the ball - an observation that most in football would not accept as feasible.
And this distinction highlights an important theme that I saw throughout this conference. Many in sports have accepted that analytics should play some role in their decision making process. Whether it was Avery Johnson acknowledging that stats played a role in his decision to bench Eric Dampier against the Warriors in the playoffs or Cuban saying that he yells at opposing player Ryan Hollins to shoot the 15-foot jumper because he know statistically it is a bad shot, many of the heavy hitters at the conference acknowledged the importance of statistics.
As someone who started a career in sports six years ago with the sole goal to be a part of this statistical revolution, you would think this would bring a smile to my face. Unfortunately, the more I get the more I want. And I want people to realize that the question shouldn't be "what are the limits of Moneyball?"; it should instead be "how can we use a Moneyball-type approach to help make better decisions in all facets of sports?"
I asked Morey, one of the conference organizers along with Jessica Gelman of the Kraft Group, last year what his goal for this conference was and he responded that he wanted it to be the TED for sports. While this is a very ambitious goal, I think he is well on his way there. But I think it may be time to drop the word analytics from the conference name because the conference has become much more than analytics and the Moneyball movement has become a lot more than the word analytics.
In sports and in business, we are always trying to find ways to use data, technology and creativity to make better decisions and innovate and while analytics is incredibly important to that movement, separating it as an individual line item actually does not do it justice. Instead, analytics is one of the many tools we have to move sports forward,
Kudos to all of those who made the MIT conference the tremendous success it was and I encourage anyone who loves sports to try and attend next year.
It's not just for the geeks anymore.