Election Blogger Star of the Show at MIT Sports Conference
Boston — When election guru Nate Silver first attended the sports statistics conference at MIT, it was an on-campus conclave of a few hundred stat geeks who were still largely looked down upon by the sports establishment.
And he was in the crowd.
On Friday, the New York Times election blogger, fresh off his success in predicting the 2012 presidential race, was center stage in a packed convention center ballroom, the star attraction of an event that drew 2,700 team and league officials and the students and job-seekers looking to work for them.
“It’s pretty astonishing,” Silver said as he stepped out of the building, escaping the autograph hounds and other fans of his political predictions who kept him on-stage for about 30 minutes following his panel. “It’s very strange. I feel like I’m in some 1 percent likelihood outcome that came through.”
What started as a gathering of sports statistics aficionados in MIT classrooms has turned into a major event in the sports business, drawing not just statistical stars like Silver, but also diverse names from sports such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Moneyball author Michael Lewis and former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian.
Officials from almost 100 teams in every major U.S. sport mingled with more than 800 students from more than 100 schools and attended panels with titles such as “It’s not you, it’s me: Break-ups in sports” and “Breaking down the fights: MMA Analytics.” Business panels looked at ways to sell tickets better, and start-ups made presentations to judges in a “trade blitz” for a $4,000 prize and a potential boost in visibility.
The conference continued yesterday with talks on statistical analysis of injuries, ownership, labor negotiations and hall of fame candidacies.
Event co-chair Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, said organizers cut off sales early a year after 2,200 attended so the crowds wouldn’t get too large. In the conference’s seven years, it has grown from one day and about 175 attendees in an MIT building to take over the ballroom at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
“The intimate feel is something I value,” Morey said while shuttling between the three panels he participated in on the first day of the two-day event. “But it’s hard as we get larger.”
It was still possible to wander the halls and bump into major league general managers, ex-coaches and owners like Cuban, a regular attendee.
This year, the big star was Silver.
The author of the book The Signal and the Noise, Silver appeared in a session-opening panel, “Revenge of the Nerds,” that discussed the rise of analytics in sports. Later in the day, he discussed randomness with Morey, blackjack savant Kevin Ma, and Cleveland Browns president Alex Scheiner.
In smaller rooms, researchers presented papers that showed, for example, Red Sox salary dump throw-in Nick Punto “provides the most defensive value in the game.” Another team attempted to establish a hockey stat comparable to baseball’s now-popular WAR — wins above replacement — called Total Hockey Rating, or “THoR”; according to their data, the best players add about five wins per season to a team.
And then there was the research that showed that getting back on defense is more productive than going for an offensive rebound in the NBA.
Not every idea was a winner, but Morey said the research is more likely to get a fair hearing now than when the conference started and statistical analysts were still seen as outsiders in the sports world. Silver’s popularity at this year’s event showed that skills developed in sports can be brought to other businesses, too.
“I do think people are trying to take advantage (of analytics) and apply it to new fields,” Morey said. “(Sports are) a clean way to try things out. You’ve got a set of rules, raw data and smart people.
“People are getting smarter, so it’s getting hard to get an edge.”