The first session of the 10th annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) in Boston opened today with a memorable quip from Bill James, arguably the godfather of sports analytics. The moderator, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, had asked about recent comments from hall-of-fame pitcher Goose Gossage, who claimed that “nerds are ruining baseball.” James responded, “That’s what’s changed since 2002. You used to have to pay attention to [guys like Gossage]. Now you can just ignore them.”
If the growth of the SSAC is an indication of the acceptance and value of analytics across the world of sports, then James is clearly correct in this assertion. Conference co-founders Daryl Morey and Jessica Gelman announced today that this year’s conference welcomes 3,900 attendees to the Boston waterfront, a 22% increase over last year and almost a 100% increase since 2013. For me, day one featured a smorgasbord of widely varying content—everything from NBA on-court analytics, to the impact of Facebook on the fan experience, to the ideal playoff system, to how teams can use CRM (customer relationship management) systems to improve their interactions with fans. Some of these sessions were memorable; others were much less so. Still, SSAC has never been called boring—except, perhaps, by my wife, who can’t entirely understand why I keep coming back here year after year.
Some of the highlights of day one from my perspective:
- It’s always interesting to see which teams send front office representatives to the conference. Attendance suggests that a team understands and promotes the use of analytics in building their roster or managing in-game situations and strategies. Gelman reported that 100% of NBA teams have someone at SSAC 2016. However, this number can be misleading; some team representatives are from marketing or sales, and attend the conference to learn about best practices in their respective areas, rather than roster analytics or in-game analytics. The Utah Jazz have two people at SSAC 2016: one from marketing (Steve Baxter), and one from Dennis Lindsey’s office (Taylor Snarr, Coordinator of Analytics).
- Not in attendance at SSAC is Bill Hancock, executive director of the college football playoff. Oliver Luck of the NCAA (and father of Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck) seemed a bit tone-deaf, or at least guarded, when it came to his thoughts on the playoff. He said that everyone on the stage (which also included executives from MLB, NASCAR, and MLS) put TV viewership of playoffs ahead of all else. If that’s true, the NCAA has an odd way of showing it. The college football playoff’s move to New Year’s Eve last year resulted in a 33% drop in ratings and $20 million in make-goods for ESPN. Hancock, meanwhile, was quoted saying, “We don’t make decisions based on television numbers. I don’t have a TV number that influences my measurable for success.” Luck doesn’t work for Hancock, so it would have been nice for him to acknowledge that this is a big black eye for the otherwise-tremendous college football playoff.
- When asked if all of the leagues have the right number of teams in their respective playoffs, Todd Durbin of Major League Soccer said that they do, and remarked that “you don’t want to put teams in the playoffs who don’t have a chance to win.” From the NBA’s perspective, I could not agree less with this statement. It’s unlikely that an eighth seed will ever win an NBA title, but they have provided some of the most exciting moments in playoff history. Who can forget Dikembe Mutombo lying on the floor with tears in his eyes after knocking off top-seeded Seattle in 1994? Or the Baron Davis and the Warriors beating the 67-win Mavericks in 2007? The panel spent most of their hour debating how to make sure that “the best team wins.” Even if there’s no chance that these eighth-seed teams can ever reasonably considered “the best,” in my opinion the playoffs are more fun with them in it.
- The on-court analytics panel featuring Shane Battier, Sue Bird, Jeff Van Gundy, Dean Oliver, and Kevin Arnovitz was the most entertaining panel of the day, and also the one that best handled the practical application of analytics in professional sports. Battier observed that analytics allowed him (a guy who never possessed great speed) to extend his career by giving him a competitive advantage over his opponent. Maybe he couldn’t stay in front of younger, quicker guys, but he could anticipate their next move by knowing their tendencies.
- When asked what percentage of players today apply analysis to their games, Battier guessed that the number is “less than 50%,” but pointed out that this number includes many players who would never admit to finding value in analytics because “it’s still not cool to be hip to the math.” In other words, many players want to gain an edge, but nobody wants to be seen as the nerd on the team. On the other hand, Battier reported that teammates would cruise past his locker “real slow,” and deftly sneak glances at the reports Battier was using.
- In the same panel, Jeff Van Gundy played the role of lovable curmudgeon as well as he always does. When he wasn’t cracking on millennials (“What’s a hashtag? What’s a lifehack?”), he was imparting real wisdom about analytics. He reported that the late Flip Saunders used to tell him, “The truth is not controversial.” Van Gundy added that “analytics makes you think about what you believe and why you believe it. It makes you come up with answers.” Van Gundy feels that, in his time as a head coach, he did not blindly accept analytical insights, but he did examine them and apply them wherever he couldn’t come up with a good reason not to.
- Van Gundy also ranted about the silliness of expecting spitting in a cup (to test for chemical balance in players’ bodies) to magically produce winning. “Rest means sleep,” he complained. “Just giving a guy the game off doesn’t help if they’re out clubbing all night.”
- Dean Oliver said “The most important aspect of [analytics] is customizing what we do to the players we have.” As an example, he cited the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, who are both having historic seasons despite going about winning in very different (almost polar opposite) ways. “Just because Draymond Green is playing center,” Oliver pointed out, “doesn’t mean the Spurs can’t be successful with two bigs.” I thought this was one of the most salient points of the day. Teams would be well-advised not to expect on-court analytics to magically turn guys into players they simply aren’t. Instead, teams should be looking at their roster and figuring out how to use analytics to maximize the abilities of the players they’ve got.
- The Moneyball Reunion panel, which produced the Bill James line cited above, did not actually include Billy Beane, but did feature Moneyball author Michael Lewis and current Browns GM Paul DePodesta. The most interesting insight here for an analyst came from DePodesta, who said that even after almost 15 years in this business he is no better at predicting which young players are going to pan out and which aren’t. They have to go down to Venezuela and try to guess whether a 15-year-old kid playing in South America is going to be great in 10 years, playing in New York City. It’s better for an analyst’s credibility to admit what he or she doesn’t know, instead of pretending to have all the answers.
- Lewis also mentioned that Moneyball was originally supposed to be a long-form magazine article. It just so happened that the 2002 MLB Draft turned out to be “the most emotionally charged” that DePodesta had ever seen. When Lewis sat in the war room with the A’s front office and scouting staff, and saw how heated and passionate things got, he knew it had to be a full-length book. There was also supposed to be a sequel written from the perspective of the kids that the A’s drafted in 2002, but it never materialized.
- A panel on serving the sports fan with analytics, featuring Nate Silver and a handful of analysts for ESPN and Washington Post, turned into a discussion of the nature of analysis, essentially trying to answer the question, “What is analysis?” They settled on the idea that data and analysis are not synonymous, and the latter involves a provable/disprovable hypothesis, as well as context, whereas data requires neither of these things. I thought Alok Pattani of ESPN had the best point of the session, pointing out that “[analysts] are not always trying to bust conventional wisdom. Often that conventional wisdom turns out to be true.” Nate Silver supported that idea by suggesting that, rather than showing that Draymond Green is overrated, analysis actually supports the idea that he’s a top-10 player in the NBA.
- Kirk Goldsberry brought his unique cartographical approach to NBA analytics with a presentation on the three-point line that had so many people crowding into the room that we likely violated a fire code. Goldsberry pointed out that when the NBA went back to the 23’9″ three-point line (after experimenting with a 22′ line in the mid-1990s), they saw a 27% decrease in three-pointers attempted, but only a 1% decrease in three-point field goal percentage. This helps explain the emergence of the three-pointer in the modern NBA; “outside of 10 feet, field goal percentage doesn’t change that much,” Goldsberry observed, “but at 23’9″ you have this subsidy of an extra point per shot.” Goldsberry used Kevin Love to demonstrate this; Love’s rookie year shot chart makes him look like a “traditional” power forward, with a lot of shots within 5-10 feet of the rim. This year, Love’s shot chart looks more like a guard; he’s averaging 6.2 threes attempted per game, which is more than Dennis Scott ever attempted during a season in his NBA career. Goldsberry presented a couple of possibilities for adjusting the three point line, none of them practical. But he pointed out that 84% of three-pointers are assisted, and “creating threes” is often a beautiful process, so perhaps our best bet is to do nothing and simply enjoy the evolution of the NBA. One of his (only half-serious) suggestions did make me wonder, though: What if each team could determine the own three-point line in their home arena (similar to how each baseball team has its own custom field dimensions)? In this system, where do you think your team would place their three point line? A Memphis fan standing near me joked, “The Grizzlies wouldn’t even have a three point line.”
- One quick observation from a talk presented by a Facebook representative: Between December 2013 and December 2015, Golden State’s fan base on Facebook grew from 700,000 to 5.1 million, which is completely ridiculous growth that demonstrates the broad (international) appeal of the Warriors. A Twitter follower (@Utebuntu) had the tweet of the day when he suggested that I ask the Facebook rep how many of those 5.1 million Warriors fans are also fans of the Lakers or Heat. Solid burn.
- Day two of SSAC 2016 may be even more compelling than day one, with the vaunted basketball analytics panel kicking off the day, and a session on “modern NBA coaching” featuring, strangely, three former coaches not really known for “innovative” approaches to the game: Mike Brown, Scott Brooks, and Vinny Del Negro.
Now it’s time to clear my head and get ready for another day soaking up stories and insights!
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