Archive for 9 March 2016

On my way to SSAC 2016

Every year, during the tremendous stress of Adobe Summit preparation, I get a two-day respite. It is called the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC), and it is held during two glorious days at the end of February/beginning of March in Boston (at the massive Boston Convention and Exhibition Center the past two years). We’re now two days away from the start of the conference (11-12 March 2016), and I’m getting—to borrow a lyric from Pete Carroll—pumped and jacked.

SSAC 2016

In the past, Bill Simmons (an early participant and evangelist for the event) dubbed it “Dorkapalooza,” which is a fairly accurate, if pejorative, moniker. The audience of several thousand attendees, which is overwhelming male and skews hard toward the 18-to-25 age range, is made up mostly of the following groups:

  • College and Ph.D. students who are there looking to network with professional teams’ front offices or sports-related startups in the hopes of getting a job. These kids wear suits and as such as easily identifiable. They are young, smart, and hungry, but supply of talent far outpaces demand, and I wish they would all go get digital analytics jobs.
  • Front office and team representatives, who are there, presumably, to get acquainted with some of the latest research in the world of sports. It is awesome when you are in a session and you realize you are sitting next John Hollinger and he is chatting with Kevin Pritchard, and you get to eavesdrop.
  • Journalists/bloggers. I remember going and saying hi to Kevin Pelton in 2013; he seemed genuinely taken aback that someone had recognized him and liked his work, which I appreciated about him. It’s a great opportunity to chat with the people who bring us the sports we love.
  • Random sports fans like me, who have no real reason to be there other than to soak in the sports dorkiness and hear from their favorite sports luminaries. They are lucky we don’t show up in sweatpants and ruin the whole vibe.

The content at this conference is wide-ranging and entirely unlike any other conference I’ve ever attended. One of the things I like about it is that they serve each of the above-mentioned audiences really well. For the job-seekers, there are special workshops where they can do practice interviews and get résumé advice. For those already in the world of sports, there are research papers and talks by their peers on best practices and pitfalls. And for me, there are panels.

Panels are the lifeblood of the SSAC for me. They will put four or five people on a stage and have them just shoot the breeze for an hour based on some lightly prepared topics. These sessions are less analytical; a question might pay lip service to data (“Shane Battier, how did you actually use analytics to prepare for games?”) but most of the panelists are former players/coaches/general managers/owners, and they’re certainly not data scientists by any stretch. They tell stories, debate about what is going on in their world today, share strategies that have helped them in their roles, and make predictions about the future. The conference does a great job combining different personalities and types of experiences; for example, a panel on contract negotiation might have a former player, a current general manager, an agent, and a negotiation expert. Thus, we get to hear a perspective on negotiation from every angle. Sometimes they even combine two people who have a history, such as when Daryl Morey shares the stage with Masai Ujiri and they talk with surprising specificity about failed trade talks and

Panel at SSAC 2013 featuring (left to right) Michael Lewis, Marc Cuban, Nate Silver, Daryl Morey, and Paraag Marathe.

Panel at SSAC 2013 featuring (left to right) Michael Lewis, Marc Cuban, Nate Silver, Daryl Morey, and Paraag Marathe.

While panel topics vary and include different sports as well as topics which are common across sports, I’m mostly interested in the NBA. I think it is the most fertile ground for interesting application of data and analytics right now; it was baseball a decade ago, and perhaps it will be football, soccer, golf, or something else entirely a decade from now. Here are a few of the basketball panels I’m looking forward to attending this year:

  • Analytics in Action. This one combines two professional basketball players (Shane Battier and Sue Bird), one former coach (Stan Van Gundy), and an analyst (Dean Oliver), with ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz moderating. They’ll talk informally about how data and analysis has changed the game on the court. Battier and Bird did a great job last year and I relish the opportunity just to hear them tell stories about life in the NBA (or WNBA) and the process they go through as players. Again, these stories usually aren’t strictly about analytics, but they give great insight into the minds of two of the more cerebral basketball players in recent memory. Van Gundy is always tremendous, with his dry, acerbic sense of humor and willingness to say exactly what he is thinking.
  • Basketball Analytics: Hack-a-Stat. The inimitable Zach Lowe will be moderating this one, with Brian Kopp (who helped create and market SportVU), Mike Zarren (Danny Ainge’s right-hand man with the Celtics), former player Brian Scalabrine, and former (future?) coach Tom Thibodeau. This one is always a must-attend. Obviously, Thibs has never been to Sloan before, because he has always been in the midst of an NBA season. I am dying to hear the perspective he brings. This looks to me like a great group to interpret some of the recent changes to the game: the unprecedented success of the Golden State Warriors, the blurring of lines between positions, etc.
  • Future of the Front Office. This one actually spans sports, with Nick Caserio (director of player personnel, New England Patriots), Jeff Luhnow (GM, Houston Astros) joining Daryl Morey (GM, Houston Rockets, and a co-founder of the conference) and Bob Myers (GM, Golden State Warriors), with Jackie MacMullan moderating. Bob Myers is the architect of this historic, transformational Golden State Warriors team, and I’m excited to hear his take on how his strategy and tactics are changing, and get his insider take on how that team came together. I’m also a huge New England Patriots fan (and former employee), so an insight on what the Patriots are doing differently to keep their edge will be extremely insightful.

When I’m not attending panels, there are a handful of other sessions worth shouting out.

  • One of my fondest memories of SSAC comes from my first conference, in 2012, when a young visitor cartography professor at Harvard named Kirk Goldsberry burst on the basketball analytics scene by giving a groundbreaking presentation on “CourtVision,” where he used shot location data to visualize players’ tendencies and strengths/weaknesses in a way nobody had seen before. Spencer Hall and I were enthralled, immediately declaring Goldsberry the “winner” of the conference. We struck up a relationship with him which (at least for me) continues to this day; Kirk always manages to find time to chat with me for a few minutes at SSAC. I don’t know whether that will continue now that he has been hired by the San Antonio Spurs (and is probably in greater demand at SSAC than ever before), but I will be in attendance when he gives his latest talk, “The Curry Landscape,” on how developments in the communication of data is lagging behind the production and analysis of data. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart in my work at Adobe and, as with much of the content at SSAC, applies to industries other than sports.
  • My product, Adobe Analytics, always manages to get a few shout-outs at various panels or talks dealing with the business of sports, since we’re the dominant digital/customer intelligence solution for the enterprise, which includes leagues, ticket companies, etc. This year, our customer Aidan Lyons, VP of Fan-Centric Marketing for the NFL, is speaking in the “Competitive Advantage” track on “Using Data, Analytics and Technology to Bring NFL fans Closer to the Game.” Whether he mentions my product by name or not, he’ll definitely be talking about our data and how it helps the NFL have a one-on-one relationship with fans.

These are just five of the 16 panels, talks, sessions, or workshops I am hoping to take part in at SSAC 2016; you can read the whole agenda on the SSAC web site. There is far too much for me to cover in a single preview blog post. However, I am going to try to blog after each day of the conference giving my thoughts and reporting on some of the more interesting nuggets that I took away from the firehose of insight that is SSAC.

My only regret is that I don’t have more friends attending the conference with me, so if you’re interested in learning at the feet of some of the more progressive and innovative minds in every aspect of the world of sports, I strongly suggest signing up for the SSAC email list so that you’ll be notified when 2017 tickets go on sale. This sort of thing is more fun with someone next to you so you can discuss the latest crazy thing Jeff Van Gundy said, so hopefully I’ll see you in Boston in 2017.