Revenge of the Nerds Nears Completion as Sports Tap Big Brains
Geek is chic in professional sports.
“I don’t know if we’re the cool kids, but we’re getting there,” Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey said.
Morey will assume rock-star status today and tomorrow in Boston at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a meeting dubbed “Dorkapalooza” by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons.
The largest gathering of sports and statistical-analysis junkies began this morning with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban; “Moneyball” author and Bloomberg View columnist Michael Lewis; New York Times blogger Nate Silver; San Francisco 49ers Chief Operating Officer Paraag Marathe, a former consultant at Bain & Co.; and Morey on a panel titled “Revenge of the Nerds.”
“Sports is a very pure laboratory,” Silver said this morning before a crowd of about 2,000 people at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. “It’s amazing what’s being done in sports.”
The conference is hardly recognizable from its start in 2007, when about 175 people convened on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said co-founder Jessica Gelman, a Harvard University MBA and vice president of customer marketing and strategy at Kraft Sports Group, which owns the National Football League’s New England Patriots.
More than 2,700 people are expected to attend this year, a rise in popularity that mirrors the increased use of statistical analysis among pro sports teams, Gelman said in a telephone interview.
“We’ve become mainstream,” she said.
Among the speakers is Sig Mejdal, director of decision sciences for the Houston Astros and a self-described geek who in 2005 left his job at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to work in baseball.
“Stats are sexy,” he said via telephone. “The field in general is booming.”
Mejdal said he’s inundated with resumes from business- school graduates whose preference is to work in sports. Morey’s Rockets received more than 1,100 resumes, about 20 percent from people working in finance, for two vacancies in the team’s basketball operations department, one analyst and one intern.
The sold-out conference, which cost $565 for non-students, has a 200-person wait list. Attendance is up 25 percent over last year, said Gelman, adding that more than 90 teams, leagues and governing bodies -- including the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer -- will be there. Five English Premier League teams are signed up, along with the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Swimming and U.S. Tennis Association.
Other featured speakers include ESPN President John Skipper, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten and Patriots President Jonathan Kraft.
The Dodgers were sold at auction last year to a group that includes the private-equity firm Guggenheim Partners. As more finance people enter sports, there’s a greater appreciation for the usefulness of analytics in decision-making, with virtually all major professional teams using statistical analysis in some capacity, Morey said.
“If someone is saying, ‘I don’t look at it,’ they sound a bit like the Flat Earth Society,” he said.
SAP AG, the software company based in Walldorf, Germany, used the conference as a forum to announce a scouting product developed in partnership with the 49ers. SAP is also helping the 49ers, who lost the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens last month, with predictive modeling of the salary cap, Marathe said.
“The sports business is becoming more and more of a meritocracy,” said Marathe, who received his bachelor’s degree with high honors from the University of California-Berkeley and his MBA from Stanford. “We’re starting to run these as efficient businesses. That means trying to get the most revenue on the business side and the best players on the team side. The teams that are most successful marry those.”
The conference also will include panel discussions on sponsorship and ticketing analytics, social media, sports betting and injuries.
Marathe says he’s fine with the geek label a little longer.
“I hope we aren’t cool,” he said. “The longer we get to stay nerds, the longer there’s a need for nerds.”
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