Highlights from the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

In the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center with only four hours of sleep to my name, I wasn’t optimistic about what I saw on the morning of Feb. 23. The 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) wouldn’t begin for another 30 minutes, but M.B.A. candidates, predominantly from institutions like MIT and Northwestern University, and leading sports executives alike wasted no time settling in. In a half-full walkway, I passed by countless sports technology booths, plenty of old business partners reconnecting, and the conference’s first job interview—of many.

I gathered my bearings and proceeded to the third floor to secure priority seating for the grand opening in the Bill James room, where seated attendees continued to chat about job openings and summer internships. The abundance of suits and business card exchanges made me anxious—I came for a sports conference, not a job fair. However, once the event officially commenced with a hilarious new installment of Bleacher Report’s “Game of Zones,” I rejoiced in learning the event was, indeed, for me.

What followed was a choose-your-own-adventure-style journey through a sports nerd’s wonderland. At any given time, a conference-goer could choose between attending one of a handful of panels, walking through the “trade show,” browsing research paper competition finalists, or rubbing shoulders with prominent sports executives, media personalities, and athletes.

Panels catering to both sports and business managers filled the conference’s two-day schedule. Topics ranged from social media to player advocacy to eSports analytics, and A-listers from the sporting world filled the slate for each talk. Even Barack Obama was announced to speak at the conference—but that’s all that media and attendees like myself are allowed to say about the mysterious post-lunch panel on that Friday.

The trade show featured booths from a wide range of organizations. FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Stats and Info brought representatives to speak about their platforms and services. Outside upstarts like edjSports and LBi Dynasty sent tablers, but I didn’t get a chance to ask how they came up with their names. There was even a PS4 set up with a virtual reality Home Run Derby game demo—in case conference-goers were looking to build up confidence for an upcoming interview by mashing some homers.

Outside the Bill James room, finalists in the SSAC research paper competition assembled abbreviated presentations on poster boards. If you squinted, the gallery looked like a high school science fair held in a grand ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown Boston. But, despite the amusing spectacle, I can assure you that trying to understand how Voronoi tessellations are used to create weighted heat maps in soccer matches is a great way to keep your intellectual ego in check.

Throughout the event, you couldn’t help but notice SSAC’s sheer star-power. The corridor was consistently littered with industry giants mingling with one another after panel appearances, flanked by colleagues who still attend the conference for mere enjoyment. That Friday, I got off an escalator behind ESPN’s Mina Kimes to walk past fellow ESPN writer Kevin Arnovitz and former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie. The next day, I watched an amalgamation of NBA icons in Arnovitz, Shane Battier, and Jalen Rose cross the same 10-foot area within 15 seconds while taking my lunch break.

All things considered, the conference’s best feature was this sudden immersion into a world of sports figures, big and small. I got to speak with the smartest writers in sports—some of whom I’ve followed for years—while strolling between events. Then I watched normally-anonymous executives reveal that they are far more than some collective, robotic decision machine. I welcomed the revelation that bosses like SSAC co-founder Jessica Gelman, Boston Celtics Assistant GM Mike Zarren, and Houston Rockets Executive Vice President Gersson Rosas had genuinely charming personalities—these are some people I can get behind.

At the end of the day, spectator sports boil down to fandom—whether for teams, individual athletes, or otherwise. That weekend, I stumbled into discovering my fandom for Gelman, Zarren, Rosas, and many more. Developing a loyalty to sports figures who wear jeans, sweats, or suits at game-time instead of a uniform probably takes sports nerd-dom to its logical end—but is perfectly fitting for an event that Ringer CEO Bill Simmons once dubbed “Dorkapalooza.”

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