Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Recap

Today’s conference recap post is courtesy of guest blogger Dave Cutler.

This past weekend I attended the 5th Annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (#SSAC to the Twitterverse). Dubbed “Dorkapalooza” by ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons, the conference is perhaps the largest single gathering of statheads, sabermetricians and other likeminded folks fascinated by statistical analysis in sports. It has also become a premier networking opportunity for students with an eye towards a career in sports as well as those already established within the industry.

Unfortunately, with four overlapping sessions running simultaneously during each time block, it is impossible not to miss a significant portion of the conference. The following is a recap of a few of the most compelling takeaways and themes from those panels which I attended:

SOCIAL: Social is not often a word associated with a collection of self-proclaimed stat geeks, but it should come as no surprise that social media was a recurring theme throughout the conference.

  • Sarah Robb O’Hagan, CMO at Gatorade, talked about the company’s “Mission Control,” their social media command center dedicated to tracking all discussion of their brand occurring on social media sites. She made a point of noting that Gatorade makes a distinction between the values of different tweets, assigning greater importance to one that is read by teenage athletes, for instance.
  • Bob Bowman, President and CEO of MLB Advanced Media, warned of the perils of businesses not using social media to engage with their customers, saying that “no matter what your business is, if you’re not following Twitter, you’re missing what your customers are saying.”
  • Celtics Co-Owner Steve Pagliuca said that while he and other team personnel discuss the potential risks for players engaging with the public through social media (i.e. harming endorsement potential) the team doesn’t take any measures to regulate their messaging. He also stated that he believed Celtics players are fundamentally good people and just needed to avoid making damaging early mistakes with social media.
  • There seemed to be a consensus across all panels that fan input is more impactful than ever, especially with the advent of Twitter as a real-time reaction tool.

Authenticity was a prevailing theme in the discussion of social media. Multiple speakers mentioned the fans’ ability to detect the difference between a Facebook page or Twitter account managed by an athlete’s marketing representative versus one in which the player provides personal thoughts.

  • Both O’Hagan and Lawrence Norman, Vice President of Global Basketball for Adidas, cited Dwight Howard as a great partner/endorser because of his willingness to actively engage with the fans through social media.
  • Nick Grudin, Manager of Strategic Partnership Development at Facebook, gave a lunchtime talk entitled, “Social Sports: Facebook, and the Fan-Centric Experience.” He singled out Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics as someone who successfully parlayed genuine fan interaction such as Facebook chats into a disproportionate following. Rondo’s 2 million fans on Facebook ranks an impressive 3rd among NBA players behind only Kobe Bryant (6.8 million) and LeBron James (5.3 million).

CUBAN MISSILES: Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban, whose “Talk Nerdy to Me” T-shirt was a hit with the attendees, launched countless off-the-cuff barbs in the direction of fellow panelists that left the audience laughing. He displayed the quick-thinking business savvy behind his success, interjecting significant insight into the discussions and demonstrating impressive foresight.

  • Dallas Cowboys COO Stephen Jones speculated that the enormous HD video boards in the team’s stadium could soon become outdated, rendering them useless and requiring the team to replace them at an enormous expense. Cuban immediately chimed in that some enterprising individual would have the ingenuity to re-purpose the screens, using them as the main attraction at a drive-in movie theater.
  • Always with an eye towards the future, Cuban scoffed at the continuous mention of social media in discussing innovations that will impact the fan experience in 10 years, making the following two statements: “Twitter is a great broadcast opportunity, but that’s living life in the past lane” and “If 500 million people are on Facebook, how can it be new and exciting?”
  • Cuban, seemingly serious, responded to conjecture that he would be providing lively commentary during the panel on Referee Analytics by informing the audience that he had received an e-mail from the NBA league office reminding him that the conference was a public forum and he would be held accountable for any statements made in regards to NBA officiating.

THE FUTURE OF THE GAME DAY EXPERIENCE: HDTV VS. LIVE EVENTS: The closing panel was chock full of informative discussion and interesting insights. There was significant focus on the issue of making technological innovations to improve the in-game experience for fans in attendance. The panelists lamented the limitations created by insufficient Wi-Fi bandwidth.

  • New England Patriots COO, Jonathan Kraft, shared that the Patriots provided devices and an application to a segment of the fans in attendance as a trial-run with the goal of making it available to the entire stadium in the future. The app offered a stream of the TV feed as well as the option of four other angles from cameras placed throughout the stadium along with real-time fantasy updates. Kraft envisions this app eventually allowing the fan to stream the Red Zone channel and perhaps select an audio feed from a number of mic’d-up players, but cautioned that this would not be feasible without significantly improving the Wi-Fi capabilities of the stadium.

The speakers were in agreement that they needed to put an emphasis on addressing and improving all aspects of attending the game in order to provide fans with the best possible game day experience.

  • Cuban noted the importance of working with the local transportation authority to ensure that travel to and from the arena is as easy possible. Kraft agreed and said that in addition to working with public officials to improve transportation options such as a commuter rail to the stadium, the team had spent $70 Million improving the existing road infrastructure around the stadium.

ODDS & ENDS: Other notable tidbits include…

  • During Grudin’s Facebook presentation, one stat illustrated a surprising disparity between Major League Baseball and the other three major sports leagues. MLB ranked a distant 4th in “Likes” with a mere 280,000 trailing well behind the NBA (7.6 million), NFL (2.6 Million), and NHL (2.4 million). This stood out on the heels of the announcement that MLB.com At Bat 2010 for iPhone and iPod touch was named the highest grossing application on iTunes.
  • While there is an enormous amount of secrecy amongst ownership and management within a given sport, a few panelists mentioned the conference as an opportunity to learn from their counterparts in other sports and share best practices. Stephen Jones also confessed to learning a great deal from what Cuban and the Mavericks do at American Airlines and replicating some of it in Cowboys Stadium.
  • Eric Mangini handled what could have been an uncomfortable and contentious moment with grace and good humor. ESPN The Magazine Editor Gary Belsky, responding to a panelist’s mention of nearly being fired by saying that having been fired wouldn’t disqualify him from appearing on the panel before turning to Eric Mangini, realizing his faux pas and saying, “Oops…sorry” as the audience laughed.

WIT & WISDOM: In addition to sharing tremendously valuable insight and lessons, panelists used the informal and lighthearted nature of the sessions as an opportunity to showcase their comedic talents. Many proved to be incredibly witty and it was evident that a number of the speakers had an established rapport with each other, leading to some very entertaining, albeit good natured ribbing. For a look at 5 of the most entertaining and informative personalities from the conference, you can read my guest blog post here.

Dave Cutler is an experienced sports marketer who has held positions with the New Jersey Nets, NBA, and Sports Illustrated. He was previously featured on this site as the Free Agent of the Week. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, read his blog, or reach him via email at CutlerDave@gmail.com.

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