Sunday, March 29, 2009

10 Hot Topics from the MIT Sports Analytics Conference

For the second consecutive year, I attended the MIT Sports Analytics Conference on March 7. The event drew a large crowd of sports insiders, researchers, media and students. Among all the great information coming from the speakers and panelists, these were my top 10 highlights:

1. Dean Oliver of the Denver Nuggets, a member of the Basketball Analytics panel, pointed out that the NBA teams actively involved in analytics are now residing in the upper part of the standings.

2. Mike Zarren, the Celtics Assistant Executive Director of Basketball Operations, believes that the ability to communicate what numbers mean is as important as the statistics themselves.

3. Rockets GM Daryl Morey explained trading the #8 pick of the 2006 draft (which became Rudy Gay) for Shane Battier, drawing a parallel from the financial world. “You have to take risks. In a game where one of 30 teams wins [a championship], you can’t just try to beat the market index.”

4. Mark Cuban stated that chemistry is important for all businesses. In this respect, other businesses aren’t all that different from basketball.

5. Cuban estimates that one win is worth a half million dollars in revenue. He added that the most profitable type of club is one in rebuilding mode, with low salaries and a low win total.

6. Most fans, media and sports insiders feel strongly that players who hit a shot are more likely to connect the next time they shoot. How often during March Madness did announcers state that a premier shooter could start to go off after nailing a three-pointer? But John Huizinga, a college professor as well as Yao Ming’s agent, presented compelling evidence against such a theory. He showed that players are more likely to miss their next shot after sinking one.

7. The Baseball Analytics panel talked about how new metrics for evaluating fielding have made an impact on the game. John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions pointed out that the difference between baseball’s best defensive team in 2008 (the Phillies) and the worst (the Royals) amounted to 130 runs. The offensive gap between the top run-scoring club (Texas) and the lowest (San Diego) was 260 runs. David Pinto followed that by explaining how defense turned the fortunes of the Devil Rays pitching staff in one year.

8. Shiraz Rehman, the Diamondbacks’ Director of Baseball Operations, spoke about the approach to valuing players. “The understanding of replacement value is becoming more apparent. What do we have to spend to get x value over replacement level?”

9. Speaking as a panelist on the “Value of Icon Players,” Celtics star Ray Allen fielded a question about individuals and team performance. He believes basketball players have to be a little cocky and crazy. He said that “if you do it the right way, individualism will make the team better.” He added that “having a great teammate is the best thing in sports.”

10. Despite the economic downturn, Tim Romani of ICON Venue Group sees stadium naming rights as a great way to activate a brand. He sighted the 02 Arena in London as a great example of what’s possible.