Sloan 2015: The Gilded Age of Analytics

“It was like my entire Twitter suddenly came alive.”

The popularity, even for the nerdiest of humans, was difficult to deny. Their glistening faces were certainly the main attraction for most attendees and the major come-on for cash starved ESPN and Sloan business school. It was Dorkapalooza 2015 — the kind of “I love working for the man” convention your stoner roommate warned you about.
There were hordes of escalator clogging, resume wielding, business school suits slurping for a chance to meet their favorite ESPN personality. A gambler (especially perky for this year’s conference with panels openly discussing the legalization of sports betting) gestured toward the giddy teeming mass of leeches, “You know, all these assholes are clamoring for $25,000 a year.”

There was also a much smaller — though clearly distinct — group of academics and real-life analysts. Some were elegantly furrowed, brioche-eating, Warby Parker-wearing dudes from your favorite hip-looking GQ ad. Others spent a lot of time inside dumpsters during high school. Many of them seemed to be more skeptical than competitive, either trait more than suitable for Robocop analysts who work for real life teams and make real life decisions. Don’t wish them luck — luck isn’t empirically valid.

And of course there was the professional sports brass, looking down from their ivory towers upon the golden dome of analytics. They were no more interested in hiring any desperate students than they were attending the analytics panels; their well-trained poker faces acting like they knew exactly what Nate Silver or Dave Cameron were going to say before they said it.
The coolest of upper management, R.C. Buford, was either happily mum or so overburdened under the collective weight of the Spurs’ five championship trophies that he didn’t bother to move. And if it wasn’t enough, Sloan gave him two more trophies not only for winning so damn much, but also for unabashedly using analytics along the way.

See? Analytics Works

That’s a phrase that was hopefully muttered more at Sloan 2015 than it had been in the past. Attendees still had to endure the Stan Van Gundys who, comically at this point, attested that analytics is still witchcraft.
Brian Burke, President of Hockey Relations for the Calgary Flames, who risibly entertained the crowd with his anti-analytics stance, chose to talk more about beating people up. He was undoubtedly defensive when he got stuck next to Nate Silver, who hurled a litany of sailor-mouthed analytical advice during the Future of Analytics panel.
“Analytics is like a drunk leaning against a light post,” Burke growled, “it’s no more used for support than it is for illumination.” The crowd laughed. Burke claimed he echoed the same sentiment at last year’s conference despite the fact that earlier that day, another panelist had blurted the same simile, citing that it was a long ago quote from Vin Scully. The old school, use-your-eyeballs, pick-your-franchise-up-by-its-bootstraps, this-is-how-we-always-did-it mentality is clearly still alive and well.
Number Factories

The second floor of the conference was a vibrant menagerie of sights and sounds: “Hey try this out”, “put this on”, “ride this bike”, “can’t you feelthe analytics in these new shoulder pads?” Small to medium sized techy startups were the conglomerated versions of the slobbering hordes, vying for the attention of teams looking for a leg up — or rather a leg up at approximately 30 degrees to the angle of the vastus medialis at a rate of 4.24 feet per second.
The depth and breadth of new gadgets was equal parts encouraging and disheartening. It is certainly apparent that as analytics sucks new ventures into its powerful web, it’s providing more opportunities to measure the wide range of sports. But for every new tree planted, the forest becomes denser and denser; at what point does the sheer expanse of numerical representations overwhelm the focus of genuine analysis?

Sad Stats
The title of the conference seemed to be misleading. It was much less about sports analytics and more about big teams unbuttoning their pants a bit to give everyone a peek at what they’ve got. Academic conferences are all fine and good, but they’re hardly ever laden with multi-million dollar organizations (unless you want to count universities). With the name “analytics” in the title, you were hard-pressed to find any actual analysis.
I wondered if anyone could see through the golden veil and see the less funny, slightly troubling features as well. The resume building room, designed to help students, was largely vacant throughout the entire conference. And the array of global sports represented — baseball, soccer, tennis, football, hockey and many others — couldn’t combat the serious lack of racial diversity. Worse than that was the overwhelmingly blatant sexism rivaled only by Silicon Valley: “Hey, the line for the men’s room is kinda long.”
Despite the number worshipping, and the consistency with which Sloan reminded attendees that over 3,000 people were at the conference, they never seemed to produce any further analytics on the demographics. “The numbers don’t lie,” stated self-proclaimed yet far-from-legit analyst Marshall Faulk at a football panel. Maybe it’s less about the numbers that lie, and more about the numbers that are never reported at all.

Perhaps the only real substance at the anemic conference were the handful of research papers that decorated a small patch of hallway. Passing through the corridor on your way to the next hot-air session, you could stop and ponder the newest Greek-spelled discoveries from the academic world. Maybe the hordes were there for the bullshit, but a few of the execs were there for the posters and research papers — gleaning what they could from those that were willing to share information, while never sharing any of their own.
State of the Union
Maybe it’s less of an old-boys club than we think. Maybe it’s less about secret information for a competitive advantage and more about the exchange of information. Maybe these conferences are about the growing pains of a formative discipline, bursting at the seams in the professional world and coming to a university classroom near you.

All of this analytics hubbub is reminiscent of a different time, but a similar state. The United States barreled into the latter half of the 19th century on the power of trains, telegraphs, and kerosene lanterns. The laborers tilled the earth as they laid the foundation for a growing country, pillaging the seemingly bountiful resources that lay hidden beneath such expansive beauty. During this time, the Vanderbilts, Tweeds, Carnegies, and Rockefellers amassed a wealth greater than anyone could ever dream, it was ambition to competition by way of greed. This was a time of great innovation and excitement for the masses, and a time of incredible power for the lucky few that rose to the top.

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