First, the numbers: the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference grew 50 percent from 2011 to 2012, and has now grown 1300 percent from its inception, in 2007, as a roomful of MIT math nerds, to last weekend's 2200-strong blowout at the Hynes Convention Center. A Time magazine blogger called it "the Woodstock of sports geekery," combining "Fantasy Football + Comic Con + Math Olympics"; and Daryl Morey, the former Celtics stats guru and current Houston Rockets general manager who co-chairs the conference, admitted he's trying to build a TED conference for sports.
MOVE OVER, MONEYBALL Thirty years after Bill James revolutionized the world of sports statistics, the buzz at this year's Sloan conference was all about basketball.
In addition to geeks, the audience for Sloan included serious financial muscle (the favored uniform for the weekend: tailored navy suit, checkered shirt, no tie, $200 haircut), major-league power brokers (73 pro teams represented, including what appeared to be the entire upper-management echelon of the National Basketball Association, plus a handful of Major League Baseball and National Football League officials, and super-agent Scott Boras), followed by platoon after platoon of ESPN employees. The reigning MLB, NFL, NBA, and National Hockey League champions all sent owners, chairmen, or top management. Meanwhile, the Celtics were hiding their stats man, Mike Zarren, as if he were in the witness-protection plan: he was the only panelist who wouldn't provide a photograph for the conference's Web site and printed program.
This much should be apparent: in the wake of Moneyball, the Brad Pitt movie, stat-geekery is now thoroughly mainstream. "I feel like it's not cool anymore, because everybody knows about it," said ESPN's Bill Simmons, America's most-downloaded sports columnist. Morey, the stat-nerd GM, agreed: "It's kind of like when Metallica had the Black Album. You made it too popular, Bill."
And yet, it wouldn't be a statistics conference without a couple of old-school heels shouting at the young mathletes to get the hell off their lawn. On a hockey panel, Toronto Maple Leafs president Brian Burke went on a tirade to the effect that, in his sport, "stats are like a lamppost to a drunk — useful for support but not illumination." And ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy admitted that, back in his coaching days, when he didn't have the numbers to back up what he wanted his players to do, he simply made them up.
THE NBA'S BIG DATA MOMENT
Simmons's fingerprints are all over the Sloan conference: hell, the gift bag came with a copy of the McSweeney's bound quarterly edition of his Grantland online magazine. Simmons headlined both days of the festival, interviewing both Bill James, the godfather of sports statistical analysis and the hidden hero of Moneyball, and Mark Cuban, the douchebag owner of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. James, a mercurial interviewee who looks like Orson Welles and now toils in the Red Sox front office, also picked up what might have been the least controversial lifetime-achievement award in history. More than three decades after James began photocopying his Baseball Abstract — the Maximum Rock N Roll of the insurgent analytics movement — Simmons asked him if Moneyball had been a vindication of his work. It was, James admitted — but not more so than the Sloan event itself. "This conference is a culmination of 30 years of my work," he said.