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Notre Dame Analytics Faculty Report From MIT Sloan Sports Conference

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A guest post from Notre Dame faculty member, Scott Nestler about his attendance at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

What is “Sloan”? I spent the past couple of days in Boston at the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC), an 11-year old conference that has grown from 200 to 3500+ attendees. Organized by Daryl Morey (GM, Houston Rockets) and Jessica Gelman (Kraft Analytics Group) and run by MBA students at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The conference is a mix of panels featuring 3-5 speakers, “Competitive Advantage” sessions put on by organizations who do sports analytics, research paper presentations from academics, workshops/tutorials (e.g. web scraping NFL data with R), and networking opportunities. At any given time, you can choose from about eight different offerings, look through vendors’ offerings, or meet new people and talk with colleagues. You can view this year’s schedule; papers and videos of talks from previous years are also available.

Scott Nestler

“Shark vs. Fox” Panel. Many people like attending the panel sessions. They often feature big names in the industry. I did attend the one titled “Shark vs. Fox” where Mark Cuban (Owner, Dallas Mavericks; Shark Tank) and Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight) sat down and talked politics and sports for an hour in front of about 2000 of us. While entertaining, it was more about politics than sports, or maybe prediction in general.

“The Business of College Sports” Panel. I made sure to attend was titled “The Business of College Sports,” featuring ND Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. He was joined on the panel by: Val Ackerman (Commissioner, Big East Conference), Dan Gavitt (SVP of Basketball, NCAA), Marc Jenkins (COO, Learfield Sports); the panel was moderated against Eric Chemi, Senior Editor-at-Large, CNBC). There were only about 200 people at this panel, but … it was unfortunately in the same time slot as one consisting of Billy Beane (GM & EVP of Baseball Operations, Oakland A’s), Cade Massey (Professor, Univ. of Pennsylvania), and Daryl Morey (GM, Houston Rockets). I’ll have to catch that one when they release the video.

The moderator first asked the panelists what concerns they had about college sports. Jack replied, “the danger to the enterprise is if the lack of integration with the university goes away. It’s not about amateurism. Rather, it is about education.” The panelists agreed that while they want the student-athlete experience to be similar for all sports, the profitable sports (football and men’s basketball, at most schools) must be stable as a business, in order to support the other 20+ sports. This means that you unfortunately end up spending far more of your time and attention on the sports bringing in excess revenue.

Scott Nestler

The perennial “will college athletes ever get paid?” question came up. They are not hopeful of that but did note that universities can now provide “cost of attendance” to student-athletes, which is an improvement over what they could do in the past. This works out to $76K/year for Notre Dame, not including cost of training, coaching, etc. Jack Swarbrick mentioned that it is important to focus on maintaining the relationship between the student and the university, not just providing additional benefits.

Regarding the use of analytics, someone (Dan Gavitt, I think) suggested that maybe the NCAA needs to hire some analytics experts. There was discussion that the NCAA Tournament committee uses a selection process for NCAA tournament that is fundamentally unchanged since it was developed in 1981. Panelists recognized that there are differences in use of analytics between pro and college sports, and within college sports at different level conferences and schools. Also, the nature of fandom is fundamentally different at the college level, in comparison to professional sports. It’s more about what’s on the front of the uniform (the school), not the back (the athlete’s name).

It is helpful to think of analytics in several categories. Core sports science (sleep, injury prevention) - easiest to invest in because it can apply across 26 sports. Competitive and strategy related analytics is more difficult because it is sport specific. Analytics on the business side of athletics can also be difficult to do but progress is being made because it is potentially the most beneficial

The moderator asked, “Why not start a student analytics group, instead of having all of these students doing projects with data they are scraping off the web, in the hope of attracting the attention of a pro team?” As the advisor for the ND Sports Analytics Club (NDSAC), I was very grateful for Jack Swarbrick’s response to this question: “Thank God for our student Sports Analytics Club. It is very useful to us.” The club has only been around for about a year now and we are really just getting started. The general idea is to pair up students with interest in sports (especially if their major is business analytics, marketing, computer science, economics) with our teams’ coaches and trainers who have data and questions that are amenable to analysis.

Scott Nestler

A Winning Presentation. As an educator, one of the presentations that really appealed to me was by John Drazan, a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) degrees are increasingly valuable, they are inaccessible to many. This project, tItled “Using Basketball Analytics to Broaden the Appeal of Math and Science Among Youth,” combines the use of statistics and visualization with an old-fashioned shooting drill (3-man, 2-ball). Add a data recorder with a sheet to collect data and rotate students through all positions, including the data recorder. Compare the difference in visualization traditionally found in textbooks, vs what is possible (image below) and look at the simple web-based form for data collection, he was able to to use sports analytics / science to broaden the appeal of STEM for youth. This will increase students interest in STEM, due to seeing how it is useful for them. And it will increase the athlete's’ awareness of analytics as a training tool. It has long been known that the social impact of sports and athletics extends far beyond wins and championships. Why not extend this to sports analytics? This effort earned him and his organization (4th Family) the $10,000 first prize in Research Paper track. I’m thinking about how to do something like this here in South Bend. Who’s in?

Other Irish Alums. Besides Jack Swarbrick, I also spoke with the following ND graduates at Sloan: Byron Spruell (‘87, ‘89 MBA, President of League Operations, NBA); Jonathan Jensen (‘99, Univ. of North Carolina - Chapel Hill); Ryan Shea (‘14, Analyst, Oklahoma City Thunder); and A.J. Meyer (‘16, San Antonio Spurs). I apologize if I missed anyone else. One of the reasons I was wearing ND logo gear all weekend was to encourage others to approach me (like Pat Garrity, ‘98 did at last year’s conference).

Random Thoughts. It was another good SSAC for me. I learned a lot, met some new colleagues, and caught up with old friends. BTW, Santarpio’s (Maverick Stop, Blue Line T) and Regina (North End) are the places to go for pizza in Boston. The night after the conference, I went to a Boston Bruins - New Jersey Devils Game with one of my college roommates and his family. The Bruins won 3-2, so the geek in me thought something like this … 5 total goals, a 1-goal margin, and a win … that means it ranks high in the “fun” predictor of an attendance model I have seen from another NHL team. That’s just how we analysts think.

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Scott Nestler, PhD, CAP, PStat is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of IT, Analytics, and Operations (ITAO), Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame. Additionally, he serves as the Faculty Advisor to the ND Sports Analytics Club (NDSAC). He can be reached at snestler@nd.edu or @scottnestler on Twitter.