WILLY (small and alone): What — what’s the secret?
BEN : Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out. [He laughs] and by God I was rich!
WILLY [To the boys]: You see what I been talking about? The greatest things can happen!
It took awhile to figure out exactly why I kept flashing to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman over the weekend that comprised the 7th Annual MIT Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference. A week later, I think I’ve got it.
At any rate, I have a response that I've continued having since I left Boston. It's this: technological innovation and an improved scientific understanding of sports would, in the end, make our games better and lead to smarter, better-informed fandom, but underneath it all is a simmering sense of dread. This owes to the sense that something important to which I couldn’t entirely give name was palpably on the way out; Willy Loman’s regret that he was, “Liked, but not well liked” could certainly apply to that not-quite-named important thing currently being ground beneath the unstoppable wheels of what's coming. This is brutal but all for the good, and what's coming—whatever it actually is—will be here to stay.
At Sloan, any flickering, sepia-toned moments of wistful (possibly self-indulgent) nostalgia—and wary, Ludditical techno-fear, and for the most part even garden variety doubt—was difficult to find. Sloan was many things—a jobs fair, a hothouse for new ideas and algorithms and, more than anything, a vamp-ish celebration by and of the smart people slowly but surely taking over the administration of each and every major sport. The refrain of a decades-old Doors ditty—"The old get old and the young get stronger/May take a week and it may take longer/They got the guns, but we got the numbers/Gonna win yeah we're takin' over"—seemed to fit, both in their wild bombast and that bombast's vagueness. If Sloan was about sketching out the shape of that takeover, it was maybe mostly about singing along.
The brainchild of Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey—the geek icon referred to by sporting press village elder/frat boy übermensch Bill Simmons as “Dork Elvis”—Sloan is now in its seventh year. What started out as an innocuous get-together for the burgeoning sports analytics scene has morphed into an industry-defining colossus, and is now co-sponsored by ESPN? Panel discussions and paper presentations would, this year, be crammed with representatives from over 90 different teams; every NBA team sent an emissary save for the Lakers, and GM Mitch Kupchak assured the seething masses on the Twitter that the team would have someone in attendance next year. Not every team uses advanced analytics to the degree that the more statistically-inclined teams do, but the prospect of some other team getting an edge and the conference's rising profile means that someone from the front office generally gets sent to Boston, anyway. In all, there were something like 2700 attendees—a 25 percent increase from 2012, and many of them paying the non-student, non-media rate of $591 for a ticket—including wild and wide-eyed MIT and other university students, and a slew of the finest reporters in sport. Fifty-odd members of ESPN’s TrueHoop Network were in attendance; as one of them, ESPN paid my way.
All these new people and cachet meant that a shift in venue was necessary, and so Sloan ditched the smaller Heinz convention center for the gargantuan Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the building is not dissimilar to New York’s Jacob Javits Center in its bland, steel-and-glass, Bauhaus-ish behemoth design; it's nearly impossible to get to via mass transit, and I finally wrote down the $100 or so I spent on cabs as the cost of doing business, or more particularly of doing business in Boston, a city about which I have nothing good to say.
The convention center's main floor is a massive, stark white cement space (which Sloan left unused) that would normally serve as the centerpiece for the International Boat/Auto Show or something of that size and shape. There are also a series of ballrooms, all of which continue the airport-ish architectural theme, but which feature the acoustics of a generic concert hall and a pro-grade sound system/lighting grid. The latter is not strictly necessary for a panel discussion featuring a grumpy Stan Van Gundy, but it was nice to know it was there. Or it seemed that way until I noticed that, due to the blaring, stadium-type sound in the room (and the shocking lack of foresight in either testing that equipment or hiring someone who knew how to run it), much of what I recorded was utterly inaudible.
We plowed into the third-floor ballroom for the opening ceremonies at 8:30am and found a packed main hall. There we were treated to few desultory remarks by S.P. Kothari, the Deputy Dean and Gordon Y. Billard Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “What does the Deputy Dean do?" Kothari asked. "Everything the Dean doesn’t want to do!” The zinger didn't zing, and the silence was heavy. Still, it was easy enough to figure out what the Deputy Dean did do: manage the rental of this gargantuan venue, handle the advertising and industry packets and wrangle the VIPs and staff the event with current MIT students (surely a significant cost savings) and make sure that the sponsors (ESPN, Under Armour, StubHub, Verizon and many others) were happy, and then receive the credit after what gave all appearances of being a very profitable enterprise. After a few pleasantries, Kothari thanked the students who’d worked so tirelessly to make this happen. Then Kothari rang a bell to commence the opening panel, which was I kid you not entitled "Revenge of the Nerds" and featured Nate Silver, Mark Cuban and Morey.
When dealing with the statistically and actuarially-bent in public-speaking situations, it's sometimes hard to tell whether a joke is just feebly bad or completely lacking in humor (cf Kothari, above). Morey proved no different in the Revenge of the Nerds panel. He starts the session by describing Sloan’s humble beginnings, occupying two spare classrooms at MIT, and stating that it’s now grown up to something “on the level of a Presidential inauguration,” and that today, “coaches worship upon the altar of stats.” He lightened, if that's the word, the introductory hubris with a Letterman-style top ten list of why this year’s conference promises to be better than ever; he shortened it, thank God, noting, to resounding crickets, “We’re only going to do five because of the sequester." The finest line centered on Wang Zhi-Zhi and the Chinese hackers besieging the New York Times, and did earn a chortle. The rest showed Morey's Toastmaster analytics to be pretty painfully imprecise.
After that performative stumble, we quickly downshift to the star-studded panel—Nate Silver, Mark Cuban, and San Francisco 49ers COO Parag Marathe, moderated by Michael Lewis himself. The chat is sunny and informal, with the trio evincing an “I could never have dreamed that my life would lead me here. Thank God I happened to run into Person X who led to Executive Y who worked for Team Z and the rest is history,” local-boy-makes-good optimism. Aside from one nervous moment when Cuban zinged Morey for his handling of the ongoing Royce White situation, it's all love; the audience gives the impression of acolytes vibing/hanging on every word issuing from the holy minds sitting onstage in way-too low slung chairs. We’ll get to the chairs in Part Two.
That morning, I shared a cab to the convention center with a college kid from Amherst. He was in his finest Brooks Brothers Boy’s Department garb and loaded down with resumes and business cards; he offered me one in case, I don’t know, I could get him into a bar later that night. He'd been to Sloan before, he told me, but this time he wasn’t going to waste time at the panels. Instead he would really focus on working the room, because that’s where the real action was.
When Kothari described Sloan as: “A forum for industry professionals, researchers and students to discuss leading in trends in the industry or are interested in the profession,” he clearly undersold the latter reason for the conference's existence. Striving was the air we breathed, and Cuban, Morey and the rest doled out standard-brand Capitalist homilies from the stage. "Don’t take no for an answer." "One kid waited in my office for days." "Outwork the other guy." Other bromides for bros—all similar, oddly, to the successories fed to the athletes these young dudes would make a living parsing. Cuban at one point responded to an audience member’s question with, “People don’t realize there’s an advanced statistic thing to making a living at this job. I’ll look for you tomorrow,” and a sort of thrill ran through the room.
There are the ideas, but the panelists were also telling this eager squad of highly educated, actuarial table-wielding recruits that there was work here, new and exciting jobs in this multi-billion dollar industry that would be a heck of a lot more fun than doing regression analysis for the Procter & Gamble or the DOD. This was the flip side of all those hopeful business cards: these sports-biz bosses were presenting themselves as avatars of a serious growth industry.
To judge by sheer buzz, the kids are buying it. The two floors occupied by Sloan were a frenzied hive; at any given hour, you could choose to poke your head into one of three different jam-packed panels or listen to the presentation of any of four research papers, many of which were also standing room only. It was impossible to attend every event and the ambient hype and promise—of money, of advancement, of some stunning breakthrough or other—led to the feeling that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was missing something important.
The hallways weren’t any different. The conference’s various superstars holding court amid throngs of admirers and/or reporters looking for a juicy quote; the small huddles of conversion among various basketball cognoscenti; the tables filled with products and apps and services; the mad dash by any and all whenever food and/or coffee was brought out. Even accounting for the 20-minute breaks between sessions, a 9-hour day felt overwhelming, exhausting. There was rarely time to digest a new metric or series of issues or important questions before it was time for the next one. The goal was to consume more, to drink in as much of what was on offer—not really on tap, just sort of burbling freely—as possible, if maybe more than could be digested. To try to find time to write coherently about what one had just seen/heard/experienced was impossible. You saw the tweets that emerged: little tidbits from one talk or another, attributed carefully, and mostly nonsense out of context.
There were four sessions that I believe spelled out the essential paradox of Sloan. We’ll visit them in Part Two.
Photo by Dan Devine.