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Sloan 2016: What’s Next?

The conference was advertised as bigger and better, with the former being certainly true. There were more talks, more attendees (roughly 1,000 dorks and 3,000 wannabe dorks), and even longer lines for the men’s restroom than last year. Naturally at the tenth anniversary of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, you start things off with a Moneyball reunion: author of the book Michael Lewis, Godfather of sabrmetrics Bill James, right-hand man Paul DePodesta, and of course Billy Bea……hey, where’s Billy?

Other highlights include more tennis analytics, more blabbering about machine learning from people who can’t describe it, Nate Silver talking about politics instead of sports, and more of the same from previous conferences. Even NBA analyst Zach Lowe said, “What’s next?” Sports analytics are a nice reminder of how a novel idea can blossom into a beautiful epidemic, but when does the analytics movement become the very thing it sought to defeat in the first place – dogmatic tendencies, homogeneity, and close-mindedness? There’s something that I think needs to be mentioned: it’s not the teams or organizations that drive the industry, it’s the people who can change the game; it’s the Sloan attendees who can uniquely brand themselves and melt this frozen paradigm.

The following list is a humble, tongue in cheek, not-sure-I-really-endorse-some-of-these-things guide for standing out at future conferences. All of the following are direct observations that I made at the 2016 Sloan conference, and were neither embellished nor fabricated. Each suggestion is rated on a scale from 1 (Don’t Actually Do This) to 7 (Definitely Do This).

Wear something ridiculous (5). What better way to get attention while marching through the corridors of a business school inspired jcrew ad? I counted 1 “Make America Great Again” trump hat, and 1 Canadian tuxedo. Both were on the same person. I’d suggest something less aggressive.
Get surly at the toaster (6). Some of the best networking I witnessed was while standing in line for the coffee, water, and food. If you sit near the toaster, the director of analytics for your favorite team can’t exactly just walk away from you, lest they relinquish their breakfast. Shmear their bagels with satire. Sip coffee. Eat bananas.
Impersonate someone (2). Hide your badge and introduce yourself as someone you’re not. Conduct an ad-hoc interview. Create a scouting report of the people you interview for the team and/or individual you’ve impersonated and email that team and/or individual your detailed report. They’ll be confused but delighted that you’ve done the work for them. Attach your resume.
Play Sloan bingo (7). (link)
Brand yourself with a unique concept and bitch about it endlessly (6). Arm your bitchiness with a bitchy product, it doesn’t have to necessarily be an instrument, but it has to demonstrate your bitchiness in a way that anyone can understand it. Make it something unique, do your research.
Network for other people and they will network for you (7). Meet people. Genuinely meet people and show interest in their work. Digest it. Spitball with them. Then meet more people with similar ideas and connect the dots. They’ll reciprocate for you.

Build lasting relationships (7). All in all, Sloan attendees are some wonderful, intelligent people – with equally impressive ideas and insights. Here are a few I came across:
        Mark Conway (MVP) – Film your tennis match with your phone, send Cizr Tennis your video, and they’ll send it back fully annotated and analyzed. Certainly a better option than buying expensive equipment that does the same damn thing. Mark is not only paving the way for analytics in tennis, but he’s showing the sports analytics community how to innovate.

        Dave Thomas (Most Unique) – Sure, you could outsource for technology that records data on kinesthetic output of your athletes – or, you could have Dave on your #squad. Dave works with five or six Olympic teams (Summer and Winter), trying to find coachable performance levers in both granular sensor data, and higher level results data for the English Institute of Sport.
        Sam Sorkin (rookie of the conference) – Sam is a high school senior at Junipero Serra in San Mateo, CA, and a staff writer for SB Nation’s Golden State of Mind. He’s already founded his own business, Sorkin Sports Intelligence, where he serves as a private game analyst for companies taking its clients to sporting events. He’s currently planning to attend the University of Michigan and major in business and sports management. Keep this kid on your radar.
       Vikram Maran (most likely to succeed) – Vik is a software engineer with an information science background. He enjoys studying the beautiful game from a strategy and performance perspective, and has Ben Pugsley to blame for pulling him into the space. Vik is a chimera of critical scientific thought and technical expertise. Hire this man.

Sloan is the time and place in which it exists. It’s Boston, a hotbed of scholarly insight, science, and business acumen. But it’s also in late winter, and it’s blanketed in chilly weather (not as cold as things have been, but still cold to this LA nerd). And it feels like it’s going to warm up soon, as evidence by a few tiny green buds that are peeking through the cool air. Stats are great. Previous performance is great too, but there’s a whole world of other research ideas and disciplines to which the analytics movement can shift its attention – (ahem, psychology). There’s still time to thaw out and diversify.

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