The Four MIT (Most Important Things) from MIT’s 2015 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

This past weekend, the world of sport -or at least those who have never played a sport in Sir Charles’s opinion - made the annual pilgrimage to Boston for the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  And while the “Round Mound of Rebound” might think that analytics is for those who stayed at home on Friday and Saturday nights in high school, Boston was the place to be for some of the biggest names in the sports business today. 

Analytics in sports has created a paradigm shift into how teams and organizations operate on and off the playing field.  Just as fans meticulously scrutinize and memorize every stat of their favorite teams or players, front and back office operations of these teams are finding out that descriptive, predictive and even prescriptive analytics can be the difference in winning a championship, preventing injuries, drafting the right player or selling out the arena.

Over the nine year history of the #SSAC15, a hashtag that saw over 14,000 tweets in the conference’s play-by-play description of the weekend events, a “Who’s Who” of panelists from commissioners and hall of famers, to CEO’s and analyst royalty, offered up their insights into how numbers, not X’s and O’s, are changing the face of sport. 

If you were unable to be one of the lucky people, like our CEO Ben Davis, to attend the conference, we’ve got you covered.  Here is our MIT: the top 5 Most Important Things from the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.


1.      Data is Now the Universal Language for Sports

What became abundantly clear from conference was the resounding message: : stories may tell but number sell.  Every panel speakers who told interesting stories about their experiences in sports, whether playing or business, that kept the audience engaged, laughing and entertained.  The common thread that tied every sport together, breaking down salary caps and television revenue discrepancy barriers, was DATA. 


Data and the numbers surrounding the operations of sports has become a language that every team and business involved with sports needs to understand and speak.  It has become the quintessential hope for every team to make it to the end of the year wearing gold and finishing in the black.  The days of professional sports teams doing things just because they, “feel good,” or, “we think that’s what our fans want,” is no longer acceptable.  The only thing that matters now is “knowing” - knowing that the best decision is being made using data, not a gut feeling.  From out of bounds plays to special ticket offers, if data is not being used to support the decision, well, then it will be hard to translate any action into success no matter what part of the sports industry in which you play.


2.      The Wall Street Journal was Right About Shane Battier

An article that ran in the Wall Street Journal in 2009,titled, “Shane Battier and the Box Score,” stands out to many as the first glimpse into the world of sports and the significance of data.  In this article, the author, Carl Bialik, discussed how Shane Battier is one of the most efficient and impactful players a team could have on their roster by simply looking at the Box Score and using the popular +/- statistic..  Now, at the time, Battier was with the Houston Rockets and was considered an average, at best, player in the NBA.  However, when they dug into the numbers, Battier’s presence on a team accounted for a +6, which means that his teams outscored their opponents by 6 points every time he was on the court, which equates to about 19 more wins per season!  Why do I tell you this and what does this have to do with the MIT SSAC? 


Battier was on full display and one of the first panelists discussing how data is changing the game…for a long time.  He has shed light on just how involved players are with data in the game.  Between the plays being called, the situations on the court and the data to determine what to do, players are being fed this information little by little to help them digest it and put it into actionable results.  Players from LeBron to Kevin Durant are using data everyday to improve themselves just as much as they use weights.  Battier has been using the, “number drug” as he called it for a while.  One stat is for certain thought, Battier’s appearance and advocacy for the role data is playing with on court performance is a +1

3.      We Don’t Know Half of the Things Going on with Sports Analytics

From real-time shot charts and ticket pricing on demand based on buying behaviors, the conference only scratched the surface of what is happening with data in sports.  As Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight blog said, “A lot of the most interesting research isn’t being talked about.” 

And why should it be?  Data and analytics has become the “secret sauce” everyone is trying to perfect.  While some are willing to share in order to get the spotlight or “Best Practice” tag by leagues, the true innovators are keeping their methodologies and practices to their vest.  We say this only to put into perspective, that as much information that is being shared at the conference, there is an exponential more amount that is still behind lock and key, driving businesses in sports today.  The most meaningful interactions to me were not with the panels, but with the people in attendance. 


4.      The Holy Grail of Fan Data has Been Uncovered

The conference was full of insightful, fun and engaging content, perfectly planned with precision and professionalism. It’s MIT…what do you expect?  But the lead off hitter for the weekend featured a partnership that is changing fan behavioral targeting and understanding for every sports team in every league across the entire globe.  That’s a bold statement but there is data to support it…of course.


Phizzle’s CEO, Ben Davis, joined SAP’s Global Vice President, Head of Business Development, Media, Sports and Entertainment, Frank Wheeler, to unveil a new partnership unlocking a bundled fan engagement solution that unites any and every piece of fan data into a single platform and profile.   As one NBA professional said, “This is the Holy Grail of sports.”  That’s what we thought. 


As stated in the press release just made available today via Phizzle, the global partnership creating the SAP and Phizzle solution, will consolidate consumer profiles, analyze and act on real-time online behavior and consolidate all existing data sources to uniquely identify fan records. The solution will provide a unified overview and deeper understanding of each fan, allowing clubs to offer their fans a more personalized experience.


"Together, Phizzle and SAP are revolutionizing how organizations contextualize information and develop unique insights to create a richer fan experience and increase efficiencies by managing Big Data in a simpler, more innovative way," said Wheeler.  Ben Davis continued by stating how, "Marketers are eager for an elegant and reliable solution that provides real-time insight into the behavior of a fan or consumer…and ultimately win fans for life."


This unification was just one of the many ways the MIT Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference brought the world of sports together with the data-crunching universe.  As Dr. Peter Venkman would have put it, “Jocks and pencil pushers living together…mass hysteria!”  And while there is still more to be uncovered as the analytics revolution continues to make its impression felt on sports, one thing is for certain, the use of data is not as “terrible” as some may think.

Click here to see Phizzle's panel presentation from the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference