The Current Role of Analytics in Sports

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This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference hosted by MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston and was blown away by some of the dialogue conducted around this developing sector of sports. For those unfamiliar with the event, it’s a collection panels, discussions, and lectures focused on the development of analytics in sports; both on the field and off. Here are some of my biggest takeaways from the event:

12: Having a conference in Boston (during February) is fucking dumb.

I had to start with the weather. Sure, I get why a conference hosted by a MBA program should take place during the academic year but could we do this thing in late April or May? Obviously the conference wasn’t held outside, but single degree temperatures suck for everyone. Let’s turn this thing into a spring gathering so frostbite isn’t a real possibility while waiting for a cab.

11: Charles Barkley will never be asked to speak at this conference.

His was probably the greatest anti-analytics rant I’ve ever heard in my life.

However, you’d have to be naive to not see the merits in predictive analytics. I understand the skepticism considering that no GM who lives purely by the mantra of analytics has a title to his credit, but I do think there’s a middle ground. Finding a balance between metrics and scouring is important when building an organization. Daryl Morey, current GM of the Rockets, anchored the opening panel on the value of analytically informed decision-making in sports along with Shane Battier, Jeff Van Gundy, and Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball & Blindside). 

10: Sports fans get mad when players buck the narrative.

We like our athletes to fit preconceived notions: to be freaks of nature with super human abilities performing at levels 99.9% of the population can’t dream of duplicating. This is why fans didn’t like Shane Battier being relevant in the NBA. Battier was self aware throughout his panel while explaining exactly how analytics taught him to slow (not completely stop) superior NBA talents like Carmelo and Kobe during his playing career. Shane’s value increased when advanced minds began understanding there’s more to building a NBA roster than just points, rebounds, steals, and assists.  Naturally elite level talents will always be more highly coveted than glue guys, but there’s a reason players like Carmelo Anthony may never win a title while others walk away with plenty of hardware.

9: No matter how revolutionary an idea may be, no one will listen to you without improving your people skills.

I found this sentiment poignant not just for those looking to launch a career in sports but for folks already well established in their own field. You may develop the greatest theory on the face of the earth but if you’re completely devoid of people skills no one will listen to you sell it. Don’t walk into a room telling others how much smarter you are than them. Try to take the most difficult concepts and simplify them so others understand the greater goal. There’s always someone who can help you take a great idea to the next level.

8: There will always be someone in the room smarter than you.

The age old axiom is if you can’t identify the sucker in the room then it’s probably you. I also believe that when you feel like you’re the smartest man or woman in the room, it’s time to find another room.  Being able to listen to some of the brightest analytical thinkers in sports share their thought processes stimulates creativity.

7: If you’re looking for a career in sports make sure you damn well love your job…

because you’re not going to get rich doing it.  Seeing these smart, aspiring college kids frothing at the mouth to work in sports gave me a good laugh. I dreamed of becoming a GM for the New York Yankees – believing that some day I’d make everyone forget about Brian Cashman. Then the sobering reality hit home; there was no fucking way I was going to work for peanuts until I was 35, hoping for a chance at the show, because I wasn’t sure the passion was there. I’m sure Clay would give the same advice to writers as I’d give to those exploring their prospects in gaming. Do something you love and try to become the best at it. The money will take care of itself. Chase your passion, not the paycheck.

6: Dudes working in sports analytics need to spend money on clothes and grooming products.

Honestly it looked as though half the people attending the conference rolled out of bed, tossed on a wrinkled suit, and hung their head out of a cab window before they showed up to network.  I didn’t expect conference goers to look like George Clooney but good lord make yourself look presentable in public, people. I would comment on the level of attractiveness of the female attendees but there were about 17 in total (which might actually be an overestimation).  

5: Rob Manfred is just what baseball needs to reinvigorate the game.

Manfred spoke for a solid hour about the current state of baseball and where he sees the game heading.  While being interviewed by MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, Manfred covered the ongoing pace of play discussion, marketing of the game, development of youth programs, and of course the potential impact of gambling on the sport. He openly addressed the league’s progressive nature, indicating that gambling/fantasy isn’t going anywhere. Meaning, instead of ignoring its existence seeking transparency becomes the solution. The most interesting challenge he mentioned was eliminating inherent geographic fan bias and creating national interest in games the same way football fans will tune into Jags vs Titans on a Thursday simply because it’s on TV.

4: College football can benefit from advanced analytics.

Tom Luginbill, Bill Connelly, Oliver Luck, and James Franklin sat on a panel about college football advanced stats led by Rachel Nichols. Luginbill joked that only Alabama seems to have the resources to aggressively attack this emerging field with proper attention. It was interesting to hear all 4 members of the panel acknowledge the fact that football at the FBS level will never be played on an equal playing field. Power programs have more money to invest in coaches, technology, nutrition, and injury prevention, which will eventually translate to more wins (unless maybe you are Texas). James Franklin offered a unique perspective on the topic by highlighting the unpredictable nature of 17-22 year old males still filling out their frames. Advancements in sports analytics will have their greatest impact on the college game through training and conditioning practices.  

3: The Sloan Conference is the comic-con equivalent for avid sports fans.

Attendees weren’t wearing costumes but the nerd quotient coupled with the dearth of females made for an interesting dynamic. I’d say it was high testosterone but this wasn’t exactly that kind of crowd. However, the energy with which entrepreneurs, former athletes, and professors led discussions was infectious. One major drawback the field is beginning to encounter is the lack of candor on current innovation. Any cutting edge development leading to a competitive advantage won’t be openly shared.  

2: Brian Burke is my new personal hero.

Hands down the most entertaining personality at the conference was the current GM of the Calgary Flames, Brian Burke.  “The notion that you can sit behind a computer and find athletes is bullshit,” was just one of his quotables from the closing panel. Burke also went on to say analytics are to sports what a lamp post is for a drunk; great for support but lousy for illumination. Burke’s comments (while thoroughly entertaining) illustrated the ongoing power struggle in professional athletics between old school scouting and new age metrics. I’ll never be a GM but have always believed finding the proper balance between both schools of thought is key. Moneyball is great but there’s a reason the movie never highlighted the impact elite arms like Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito had on the A’s emergence.  

1. Gambling is everywhere…and it’s not going away.

From a legalization panel to daily fantasy discussions there was plenty of healthy gambling-driven dialogue taking place in Boston over the weekend. The leagues are aware of its prevalence and Adam Silver and Rob Manfred openly addressed the topic in mainstream discussion. Scott Pioli’s feigned ignorance at Sloan about fantasy football was beyond laughable, illustrating the absurd stance the NFL has taken towards legalization of sports wagering. Brian Burke went so far as to ask Pioli if he could be so naive as to think there wasn’t money-changing hands in these “friendly” fantasy leagues. I have a vested interest in the emergence of sports gambling’s ongoing legalization battle, I openly admit that, but regardless of my stance, continued dialogue at higher levels is an absolute must. The leagues and media need to continue flushing out misconceptions surrounding legalization and highlighting the transparency that regulation creates.  Gambling is here to stay so the faster we embrace it and educate accordingly the better.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.