MIT Sloan Sports Business Conference Recap

This weekend I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Sports Business Conference in Cambridge, Mass. This year’s conference focused on the role of analytics in sports management, although, like many business school events, the real purpose was for students to network and make contacts within the industry. The conference organizers were kind enough to let me attend as a member of the press, which speaks volumes about their attitude toward non-traditional outlets. Among the web types I was by far lowest on the food chain, as Rob Neyer and Kevin Goldstein moderated panels, David Pinto liveblogged the event at Baseball Musings (plus extended wrapup), and Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus attended. The conference was an interesting mishmash of analytic intelligentsia (such as Bill James, John Hollinger and Aaron Schatz), executives (like Rockets assistant general manager Daryl Morey, Blue Jays general manager JP Ricciardi, and Patriots Director of New Business Intelligence Jessica Gelman) and hordes of students looking to exchange resumes for business cards. Luckily, I’m not in the market for gainful employment—as a student, I’m happily a drain on society—and I was able to just enjoy myself.

A Glamorous Industry

A career session in the morning catered to the many people looking to break into the fast-paced sports entertainment industry. Folks were so desperate for contacts that one guy even gave me his resume. (BJ, if you’re reading this, I can’t secure employment for myself, much less other people. But good luck!) Lou Perna of Turnkey Sports suggested that entry-level employees should be prepared to roll up their sleeves and do dirty work. “It will be beneath you,” he cautioned, but he encouraged folks to use their revenue-generating abilities to distinguish themselves early on and save the brainpower for later in the career. Conference co-chair and Houston Rockets assistant general manager Daryl Morey suggested that young people find mentors that can help them through their early career. When asked who his mentors were, he said, “Billy Beane and Bill James.” Not bad as far as mentors go, I suppose, but it says a lot that his opening comments were that success in the sports industry was a “strong combination of luck and skill.”

It’s not all candy canes and lollipops working in the sports industry. One person I spoke with had worked for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants and told me that the lifestyle is brutal and the pay stinks. He quit the sports industry and went back to school to get an MBA; he told me that he’d like to get back into sports after he’s made a boatload of money and can afford to buy into a franchise (even if a minor league one). Working in sports sounds a lot less glamorous that one might assume, and many of the people I found to be satisfied with their roles were consultants to teams rather than employees.

JP Ricciardi and Jamie McCourt

Blue Jays general manager JP Ricciardi gave one of two keynote speeches in the morning. This was a sight to behold: a room chock-full of MIT students captivated by a jock. Some highlights:

  • He said that Moneyball really opened up the industry to new ways of thinking. This surprised me. I always assumed that by the time the book was released that at least some degree of analytic thinking had pervaded most front offices. His comments made it seem otherwise. One person who had worked with front offices told me that, even today, only three or four teams in baseball are as rigorous with and as receptive to analytics as they ought to be. In the interest of discretion, he declined to name which teams, but the impression I got from him was that publicly available analysis is not far off from what the most sophisticated teams are doing.
  • His front office is very stats-oriented, focusing mostly on OBP and OPS. He noted that they keep an eye on the more advanced statistics available, although he was still skeptical about VORP. (Keith Woolner, inventor of VORP, raised his hand after the speech and said, “I invented VORP, so if you have any questions I’ll be happy to answer them.” To which Ricciardi replied, “I need to talk to you later.”)
  • He spoke at some length regarding the artifice that is the “stats vs. scouts” debate and gave a few examples of how even the stat-oriented Jays value a player’s mental toughness because of their frequent road trips to the unfriendly confines of Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. He mentioned Mike Bordick as a player who was acquired for his “off-the-charts makeup” and Ricciardi credited him for the subsequent success of a young Orlando Hudson.
  • In response to audience questions, he gave his opinion on the Barry Bonds signing (“I’m glad I don’t work for the Giants”), the DirecTV deal (“It’s a bad deal”), a worldwide draft (he’s in favor), the role of the manager (“You’d never let a middle manager run a business”), and steroids (“It has to be addressed—the game is doing well, but that’s one area that’s a black eye”).
  • I asked a question about the arbitration process and he gave a bland answer saying that communication was key and that good relationships with players and agents make the process itself more business-oriented. I later spoke with a person who had prepared an arbitration case for the Angels a few years ago. His assesment was not so kind: “It’s a [screwed] up process,” he said, although his french wasn’t quite so good if you catch my drift.

The other keynote speech was given by Jamie McCourt, Vice-President of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her speech used a “Baseball as America” theme, which—as David Pinto noted on his blog—was long on platitudes but short on specifics. A few things did stand out:

  • She talked about using corporate sponsorships as a way to keep from passing increasing costs on to the average ticket-buying fan. This produced a hearty scoff from a knowledgeable baseball person. I later asked that person if his bullshit detector went off. He smiled and said, “Maybe.”
  • She mentioned that the opinion of a lot of people matters when running a baseball team and counted the media among them. I thought that was especially interesting in light of Bill Plaschke’s very public jihad against former Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta and DePodesta’s subsequent dismissal.
  • Despite her generally trite language, her love for baseball as a sport and institution was clear. She talked about the Dodgers being not only a business, but as the personality, heartbeat, and civic pride of Los Angeles. A little over the top in my opinion, but sincere nevertheless.
  • She also thinks that steroids are unacceptable and have “no place in baseball.” Interestingly, both Ricciardi and McCourt placed a large emphasis on the role of the Player’s Association in addressing the problem.

Personnel Decisions

One of the most popular sessions was a panel discussion on personnel decisions. Rob Neyer moderated a discussion between Bill James, San Antonio Spurs Assistant General Manager Sam Presti, and Daryl Morey. The discussion between Presti and Morey was interesting in that the Spurs seem to operate on a very traditional basis, with lots of decision-making power resting with the head coach, whereas the Rockets are on the leading edge of analytic thinking. But both agreed that one of the frontiers of basketball management is in analytics, with Morey noting that the need to gather more information was particularly critical. James agreed with this in the context of baseball; even with the abundance of available data, he said that information gathering is still an important field to conquer.

As for baseball-related tidbits, James noted that he built his career by turning issues of opinion into issues of fact and—oh, the irony—he has now been hired by the Red Sox to give his opinion on certain matters. He talked about the tools he uses in his evaluations, mostly of minor leauge talent, including Win Shares and Loss Shares, simulations, and scouting reports. Neyer asked what the future of sabermetrics ought to be now that offense, pitching, and defense had been adequately addressed and James responded that the future of sabermetrics is to stop looking at how clubs are run and start looking at how the league is run. Rules changes that would alter the game to benefit the fans is something he seemed particularly interested in; he suggested that the number of pitching changes per game be limited in some fashion. James summarized his thoughts thusly (and I paraphrase): “I used to compose letters to teams telling them why I thought what they were doing is wrong. Now I compose those letters to the commissioner.”

One thing the panelists talked about was the balance between proprietary and public information. Presti waffled a little bit, saying only that one had to strike a balance between the spirit of open dialogue and hurting one’s own team. James took a stronger stance, saying that there is a limit to how much good work one can do in a closet (I assume he didn’t mean a literal closet, inside which quite a bit of good work can be done). One great thing that the internet baseball community is the open exchange of information, and I think there’s no better example of this than the presence of four different projection systems available for easy comparison at Fan Graphs.

Final Thoughts

I do hope that this conference continues into subsequent years, as recruiting the best and brightest into sports management is one way to keep the fan experience monotonically increasing. But the biggest benefit of conferences such as this is that it gets lots of smart people together to talk about all aspects of sports, from ticket pricing to league management. That’s a good thing, and the level of dialogue is especially enhanced when the culture is inclusive to analysts, scouts, executives, bloggers, and students as it was this weekend. Even though it sometimes seems that sports, especially baseball, are dominated by cynicism and curmudgeonliness, events such as this make me very optimistic about the future. It’s a good time to be a fan.

Comments are closed.