The Joy of Stats
The brainy, numbers-crunching Jewish fans who’ve revolutionized pro sports and realized every geek fan’s dream are celebrated as heroes at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
Diagram Brian Skinner (The price of anarchy in basketball, University of Minnesota, 2010); photo Jason Merritt/Getty Images.
I spotted Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in the crowded hall almost two hours before the first of two panels he was participating in was scheduled to begin. He had no apparent handlers, but the crowd at the fifth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference knew to make way for him and his shock of black hair. He is a few inches north of six feet, but what you most notice about his physical appearance are his biceps, which bulged from the sleeves of an inexpensive-looking gray T-shirt that bore the words, “Talk Nerdy To Me.”
The Sloan conference—its host is MIT’s Sloan School of Management—is the foremost gathering for sports professionals, journalists, and fans interested in the most cutting-edge ways of viewing and analyzing sports. Cuban, who made a fortune in the high-tech boom of the 1990s and then bought the majority share of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team in 2000 for nearly $300 million, is the poster boy for the sports-geek culture that found its nirvana on March 4 and 5 at the Boston Convention Center, a metallic, antiseptic hulk in an ugly, picked-over section of downtown Boston. New York Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck and the Olympic gold medalist speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno were there. Malcolm Gladwell, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, and basketball coach turned television commentator Jeff Van Gundy were all there. Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell—the guy who gets to tell Peyton Manning what to do—was there, as was Daryl Morey, the high-profile general manager of basketball’s Houston Rockets—in fact he was the co-chair of the conference.
But no one attracted more attention than Cuban, who gives the impression that he was motivated to buy a sports team by roughly the same sentiment that moved Charles Foster Kane to purchase the New York Inquirer: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” After Cuban once remarked that the NBA’s head of officiating “wouldn’t be able to manage a Dairy Queen,” he later expressed regret for the damage his comment caused the ice-cream chain and volunteered to work at one for a day—the sort of gracious, clever stunt you could see yourself pulling if you, too, ruled the world.
To the fanboys who paid $400 (or maybe the $100 student rate) to attend the conference, Cuban is plausibly one of them.
To those who dream of future front-office success in sports, Cuban is the apotheosis: owner of a perennial contender. The Mavericks have won more than 50 games (of 82) in each of the 11 full seasons Cuban has been the team’s majority owner, and in each one of those seasons they’ve been one of the eight teams (of 15) to qualify for the playoffs in their conference. (It’s a streak only the San Antonio Spurs, the Mavs’ bitter rivals, can match.) This year, the Mavericks went 57-25, good for the Western Conference’s third seed, and are currently up three games to two in their first round playoff series, against the Portland Trail Blazers.
To undergraduate business majors and slightly older business students—in their gray suits and with their consultants’ vibe—Cuban is the guy who arrived in Dallas in the ’80s and saw that while the J.R. Ewings had cornered the oil market, there was money to be made in the burgeoning technology business. He proceeded to make this money and then buy the Mavs, a relatively young organization playing basketball in a football town, and remake them into the sixth most-valuable franchise in the NBA.
To the stat geeks—the conference’s original fan base, who these days toil less frequently in basements and more in professional front offices—Cuban is an acknowledged patron and a kindred spirit, someone who not only perceives their utility but would be one of them if he wasn’t instead spending his time making much more money than they do and appearing on Entourage. “Cuban’s special,” Aaron Schatz, arguably football’s top outside statistician and a difficult man to impress, said appreciatively. “I think most owners who meddle in their teams are very old-school. Cuban meddles in a teach-me-something-I-don’t-know way.” Nate Silver, a former baseball analyst, agreed: “There are owners who are still old-boys culture, but he’s not a part of that.”
And of course there were the Jews.
Everyone at the conference was Jewish—and by “everyone” I mean that while Jews comprise 2 percent of the American population roughly every third person at the conference was Jewish. I met some kids from the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, a group of terrifyingly bright 20-year-olds, and quickly learned, to my lack of shock, that most of them were Jews. The business majors and the MBAers were Jews; one conference organizer, a Sloan student with a distinctively Irish name told me how glad he was I was writing this story, because clearly everyone there, himself included, was Jewish. The journalists covering the conference were Jews. And Cuban—his family name was Chopininski—is Jewish, too. This matters.
Roughly a decade ago, the notion that there was a cutting-edge way to view and analyze sports materialized in the public consciousness when Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball sold half a gazillion copies and spawned even more conversations at bars, stadiums, gyms, classrooms, and every other place American men congregate. Moneyball described how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane used insights gleaned from sabermetrics—the advanced statistical study of baseball—to take the meagerly financed A’s to three consecutive postseasons. (But he never made it to the World Series: “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” Beane famously admitted, an instant entry into the quotes-we’d-need-to-invent-if-they-didn’t-exist Hall of Fame right beside “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”)
Advanced analytics has since made its way to the other professional sports, so that now even the casual fan is aware that an at-bat that results in a walk is nearly as valuable as an at-bat that results in a single and that a basketball player can be a major asset to his team even if his traditional numbers, such as scoring, are unimpressive. “For a long time, it was pretty niche,” Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski, perhaps the foremost practitioner of sabermetrics in journalism, told me. “But now, even people who would claim not to be interested in the numbers would use things like OPS”—that’s on-base percentage plus slugging percentage—“which may be basic in the advanced world but is much, much more sophisticated than batting average, RBIs, and home runs.”
The stats craze was in part an inevitable iteration of the Internet’s democratization of knowledge. “We live in an environment now where there’s a lot of open data, which makes people less tolerant of letting people be gatekeepers,” argues Silver, who at Baseball Prospectus was a top sabermetrician and has since abandoned baseball metrics in favor of predicting elections for the New York Times. “It’s not that radical, really, right? But in some ways it’s been very encouraging—if you believe in mass knowledge, you definitely have seen progress.”
More to the point, the democratization of knowledge has redefined both the professionals and the fans by bringing them closer together—and, in the person of Mark Cuban, arguably making them one and the same. “There’s a geekification going on of sports,” Malcolm Gladwell told me a couple of weeks before the conference, where he would moderate the opening panel discussion. “In the beginning, the fan was a relatively passive figure. You have all of these things that are turning the fan into an actor—fantasy sports, all this statistical stuff.” Being a sports fan today entails not only rooting for your team but affirmatively conceiving what your team could be doing better; using ESPN’s trade machine to make hypothetical trades allowed by each team’s salary cap situation and each player’s contract; and fundamentally understanding how the sport really operates in a way that even hardcore fans of a quarter-century ago could not have imagined.
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