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
People who were at the first Sloan Conference—this year’s was the fifth—speak of it as one of those bizarre, weird, horrible parties that was nonetheless a major bonding experience; you shoulda been there, man. They huddled at desks in cramped classrooms and walked from building to building in the snow.
The conference entered primetime in 2009 after Bill Simmons attended and famously labeled it “Dorkapalooza ’09.” (Morey, his friend, was “Dork Elvis.”) This year, for the first time, the conference lasted two days instead of one, and this was the first time attendance swelled to 1,500. ESPN is a primary corporate sponsor. “It’s like the most fun you can have at anything that’s called a conference,” Silver told me beforehand.
On Friday, I attended the opening session, “Birth to Stardom: Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours?” The panel was moderated by Gladwell and included Morey and former Rockets coach Van Gundy basically making fun of the shooting guard Tracy McGrady, last decade’s archetype of the fabulous flameout. The conference was split into 75-minute blocks, with 15-minute breaks between sessions. During some of the blocks, I sampled several events, grabbing a few minutes from one panel, a few more from a lecture, and spending the rest of the time among the steady stream of people in the hallway. I saw Tobias J. Moskowitz, co-author of the new book Scorecasting—he met his co-author, L. Jon Wertheim, he later told me, at Jewish summer camp—give his spiel on “The Real Reasons Behind Home Field Advantage.” (There’s actually only one, he says: It’s the refs, stupid!) I dabbled at the “Basketball Analytics” panel, which featured Cuban. Saturday morning, I ducked in briefly to the “Business of Sports” panel to see Sunil Gulati, an incredibly short and incredibly charming silver-haired Indian-American who is the president of U.S. Soccer and was my Economics 101 lecturer when I was a freshman. I sampled various booths in the trade show that spread out across the blocks-long second-floor hallway, where exhibitors included StarStreet: The Sports Stock Market; Are You Watching This (which lets you know if any exciting games are on, and how exciting these are according to a scale of “OK,” “Good,” “Hot,” and “Epic”); StatDNA (“The world’s most advanced soccer data and analysis”—from which you can deduce that the advanced work in soccer is being done in virtually the only country that calls it “soccer”); Sports Data Hub; and eThority.
There was an unusually small room at the northwest end of the hall devoted to the authors of research papers. Here are the names of some of the papers: “Paired Pitching: The Welcomed Death of the Starting Pitcher”; “Optimizing an NBA Team’s Approach to Free Agency Using a Multiple Choice Knapsack Model”; “A Groovy Kind of Golf Club: The Impact of Grooves Rule Changes in 2010 on the PGA Tour”; “An Improved Adjusted Plus-Minus Statistic for NHL Players”; “A Major League Baseball Swing Quality Metric”; “The Effects of Altitude on Soccer Match Outcomes.” There is no way David Foster Wallace did not come up with at least one of those titles.
The “Football Analytics” panel, Friday afternoon, was my favorite. “This is a panel with five white male panelists,” said Gary Belsky, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine, to begin things. What he didn’t mention was that four of them were Jewish, and the fifth, Eric Mangini, an NFL head coach, most recently of the Cleveland Browns, falls under the jock exception to the Jews rule. Mangini looked polished in a shiny dark suit and red tie. There were two execs—Adam Katz of the Philadelphia Eagles and Alec Scheiner of the Dallas Cowboys—tan, dark-haired men in glasses who kind of looked alike; Belsky; and Schatz, who sat in the middle, long hair back, beard-and-mustache messy, legs spread in an obtuse angle, water bottle nestled in front of his crotch, looking like an unbelievably satisfied hippie.
They spent much of the time talking about game management, the term of art for the practice of exploiting the flow of the game—when to spend each half’s three precious timeouts; when to challenge a ref’s call; when to attempt a two-point conversion. The odd thing about game management is it does not require the savant-like football expertise that nearly all head coaches possess; in fact, some of the best head coaches have decidedly poorer understanding of game management than the average fan does. (Simmons has suggested that each coach hire a teenager who plays video games all day as a game management consultant, and he is not wrong.) Andy Reid, coach of the Eagles, and Norv Turner, of the San Diego Chargers, routinely design offensive attacks of a complexity that no fan can comprehend while also routinely making idiotic decisions regarding timeouts. Game management is thus a perfect example of the increased access fans have to once-privileged information. Where before we silently cursed the dumb coach in our living room while remaining unsure whether we were pissed because we were right or because we had had four beers, today we take to the Internet and find thousands of people who also think we are right, and some more who have done the math that demonstrates that we are right, and therefore we know. When Mangini, an unusually thoughtful football coach who is cognizant of the analysts’ contention that teams ought to punt the ball far less frequently, demurred that he is still liable to make in-the-moment, even gut decisions, Belsky replied, “But you sound like a blackjack player!” This is, after all, a fans’ world, and Mangini just coaches in it, at least when he is employed.
At the panel’s close, Schatz noted that somebody in the audience had written on a sign that the NFL owners and players, who were set to lock out/be locked out in a couple of hours, had agreed to a one-week extension. In a perfect metaphor for fans’ newfound empowerment, the panelists, performing for us on the stage—and thereby banned by decorum from reaching into their pockets, pulling out their BlackBerrys, checking their Twitter feeds, and learning the news—were in the dark, and it was up to some random guy to inform the senior vice president and general counsel of the Cowboys (Forbes valuation: $1.8 billion) of the most important development to take place in his job in the past month. (One week later, the talks dissolved, and the owners and the union are now in court.)
The most anticipated panel was at 4:15 p.m. on Friday. Its title was dull—“Referee Analytics”—but it offered Cuban, NFL referee Mike Carey, and Bill Simmons discussing sports officiating, a topic on which Cuban has been known to be vocal. “Mr. Cuban,” Simmons said, “I can’t believe you’ve come on this panel.”
Cuban’s passion has gotten him in hot water. He complains about refs as though he is a fan, but he is not a fan, he is an owner, and he is therefore subject to league rules against questioning officiating, violations of which have cost him millions of dollars in fines levied by the commissioner’s office. “I got an email from the league saying it’s a public forum and there would be an intern watching,” Cuban replied to the crowd. Everyone laughed. Cuban smiled, too, but he was serious.
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