Every spring for the past seven years, the stat geeks of the sporting world have gathered in Boston for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, or “Dorkapalooza” as sportswriter Bill Simmons famously dubbed it. As analytics have moved to the fore in sports, the event has grown into a kind of Oscars for sports nerds. Nothing quite says you’ve made it among number crunchers like sitting on a panel at Sloan. This year, 2,700 attendees are expected for the pageant. Most of them packed into a ballroom at the Boston Convention Center this morning to see Nate Silver get the equivalent of a nerd lifetime achievement award.
Silver, probably best known for his FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times, where he has forecast the results of the past two presidential elections with scary accuracy, is also a legend among baseball fans for inventing an algorithm to project player performance. This morning he sat in the middle of the dais between moderator Michael Lewis, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, and San Francisco 49ers Chief Operating Officer Paraag Marathe for a panel titled “Revenge of the Nerds,” which highlighted, as the program put it, “the meteoric rise and dominance of probabilistic thinking using objective data” in sports.
Silver used the occasion to take another swipe at the political pundit class, getting the biggest applause of the session when he noted that a lot of their work “really is total bullshit … that ads no value to anything at all.” He called out Bob Shrum in particular as a “guy who’s never been on a winning political campaign.” Silver has earned his spot on the dais and the authority to call bullshit. Still it’s hard not to notice that he was veering dangerously close to pundit behavior as he and the others on the stage shared the stories of how they landed there. The panel’s Revenge of the Nerds “narrative” is just the sort of easy, conventional wisdom a good pundit loves. Last fall, Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, became a bestseller for helping readers distinguish the one from the other. And the Sloan behemoth, nowadays, is largely noise.
This morning’s session didn’t feel all that different from a Sunday morning political round table. The panelists repeated the oft-told story of how stats came to be king. We learned that, for his first two years at Indiana University, Mark Cuban didn’t drink so he could focus on getting his hardest coursework done; that Michael Lewis doubts people will still be playing football 50 years from now; and that Daryl Morey knows a guy who once sat in the lobby at a team’s offices until it hired him. When Morey teased the audience with his prediction that basketball would look dramatically different in the coming decades because of strategic advantages found in analytics, Lewis begged him to give a taste. Morey replied with talk of “synergies in style of play.” This makes sense: If Morey knows what the next leap forward is, he’s not going to advertise it at Sloan. As Slate noted ahead of the conference, the newest ideas now mostly stay “locked up inside team offices,” or in gambler Bob Voulgaris’s black box.