Harvard Brainpower Joins MIT Fueling Boston Sports Teams’ Titles
Beantown is Braintown when it comes to professional sports.
Fueled in part by what one team executive called the “intellectual horsepower” of the area’s universities, Boston’s professional sports teams more than any other city are the domain of statistical-analysis devotees armed with advanced degrees from schools like Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The city’s professional teams cooperate and drive each other to innovate, fueling their success on the field, said Lisa Masteralexis, department head of the sports management program at the Isenberg School at UMass Amherst, whose alumni include Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington.
“And that may be what’s unique about Boston, that relationship and that dynamic between the pro teams,” Masteralexis said. “There’s a lot about thought leadership in the group -- who’s leading the process, where are we headed, let’s learn from each other, and let’s work together.”
Among those mapping the way are Jessica Gelman, vice president of customer marketing and strategy at the Robert Kraft-led Kraft Sports Group, which owns football’s New England Patriots and soccer’s Revolution. The Red Sox are owned by John Henry, formerly a hedge fund manager, while Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck is a former general partner at Highland Capital Partners.
“The owners, especially the Krafts, are well-versed from all of their business backgrounds in the value of analytics,” said Gelman, who has a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard. “While Boston doesn’t have the same technology as you have in Silicon Valley, there are so many startups that have a focus on sports analytics because of the intellectual horsepower here.”
Gelman and Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey in 2007 co-founded the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which begins tomorrow and will draw more than 2,000 to what is the largest gathering of sports statistical-analysis followers. Seventy-six teams from the four biggest U.S. sports leagues will be there, including 22 from the National Football League, up from 14 a year ago.
Among the topics being discussed are athlete and business analytics, wearable technology, the science of negotiation and how big data is changing sports. On the field, the driving idea behind analytics is the use of statistics and data to predict player and team performance.
Among the Boston-area executives planning to attend are Revolution President Brian Bilello, who studied engineering and economics at MIT and who said there is seemingly an endless pipeline of talent feeding the area’s teams.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I, myself, went to MIT and wound up being president of a Boston team,” he said.
Before joining the Kraft Sports Group, Bilello was a management consultant at Bain & Co. He got his start in sports by helping with a professional team’s analytics product. His co-worker on the project was Paraag Marathe, who last month was named president of football’s San Francisco 49ers.
Marathe, who holds an MBA from Stanford University, credits the Red Sox with making statistical analysis de rigueur in Boston. The team hired Sabermetrics pioneer Bill James as a consultant in 2002. After ending the franchise’s 86-year championship drought in 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series again in 2007 and 2013.
“It becomes written about more, more in vogue, the other owners say ‘maybe there’s stuff we can do,’” said Marathe, whose 49ers reached the 2013 Super Bowl, losing to to the Baltimore Ravens.
The use of analytics is entrenched in the Bay Area’s teams, too, Marathe said. Believers extend beyond baseball’s Oakland Athletics, whose general manager, Billy Beane, was the subject of Michael Lewis’s book, “Moneyball.” Henry in 2002 actually hired Beane, who later changed his mind.
Meantime Morey, holder of an MBA from MIT, prior to joining basketball’s Rockets held a similar position with the Celtics. The basketball team’s assistant general manager, Mike Zarren, is a Swampscott, Massachusetts, native with a degree from Harvard Law School. The Celtics have reached the National Basketball Association Finals twice in the past six seasons, winning the title in 2008.
Hockey’s Bruins, who won the 2011 Stanley Cup, will be represented at the conference by Assistant General Manager Don Sweeney, who, like his boss, Peter Chiarelli, has an economics degree from Harvard.
Zarren said the inter-team collaborations are “informal,” fueled by a shared interest in analytics and personal relationships developed over time. In addition, he doesn’t hesitate to reach out to the area’s scholars for assistance.
“It’s a very friendly environment,” he said. “It’s more about the vibe in the city. There are so many interesting, thoughtful people.”
The Patriots, led by coach Bill Belichick, have appeared in five Super Bowls since 2002, winning three. Belichick is known to read research papers on fourth-down conversion rates, said Carl Morris, a professor of statistics at Harvard and the faculty adviser to the Sports Analysis Collective, a student-run organization dedicated to the quantitative analysis of sports strategy and management.
“I always thought coach Belichick would be a really good mathematician or economist if he wasn’t a football coach,” Morris said.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, holder of an economics degree from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, will also speak at the two-day event.
While Stevens, 37, said pro sports teams are using statistical analysis to varying degrees, he does sense the influence of the nearby academic institutions.
“You are onto something with the fact that the town really energizes you to be a deep thinker, to explore new things,” he said. “You get the feeling how important academics are.”
At Harvard, more students are seeking opportunities in sports analytics, said Julian Ryan, co-president of the Sports Analysis Collective. The group, which historically has focused on baseball and basketball, is expanding into soccer and golf, Ryan said.
“As we expand our base we have more and more people interested,” he said.
John Ezekowitz, a former co-president of the group who works at Sankaty Advisors, the credit affiliate of Bain Capital, said Harvard statistics professor Morris is among those who were writing about sports and analytics even before James.
“There are a lot of people who have been thinking about this in the Boston area,” said Ezekowitz, who while in school worked as a consultant to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. “You can’t ignore it anymore, that’s for sure.”
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