The Influence of MIT: Dispatches from the 2012 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

by Jay London on March 7, 2012

in Alumni Life, Athletics, Events, In the News, Media, Modern Geekhood, Research

Jeff Ma ’94 (left) moderating the “Insider Trading: Sports Bookmaking and Gambling” panel.

It’s no surprise that the Sloan school hosts the world’s largest sports analytics conference. But MIT’s influence on the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference extends far beyond gracious hosting and the event’s Boston location.

MIT researchers, students, and alumni had a large presence throughout the conference. From big name panelists–conference co-chair Daryl Morey ’00, Jeff Ma ’94, and Robbie Allen ’96–to Major League Baseball player agent Scott Boras mentioning that the hiring of a MIT alumni 15 years ago was integral in translating advanced statistics to benefit his clients, MIT’s influence blanketed the event.

Media Lab researchers Santiago Alfaro (center) and Daniel Novy (right) discuss the SlamForce Net.

Media Lab research assistants Santiago Alfaro and Daniel Novy partnered with Peter Scott, vice president of Turner Sports, to present “Slam Force G’s: Quantifying the Force of a Monster Dunk.” The trio discussed SlamForce Net, a Media Lab-designed basketball net that calculates the force and speed of a basketball traveling through it. The net was used to measure the Sprite Intensity Meter during the 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and Alfaro and Novy were featured live on television during the contest.

Eugene Shen ’98 co-presented on positive and negative synergies in NBA basketball, which analyzed the skill categories of every NBA player in an effort to decide which players work best alongside each other on the court. A portfolio manager in New York City, Shen’s team used financial techniques to incorporate their data. He discussed the presentation on ESPN’s Numbers Never* Lie television show, which was broadcast live from the conference.

“Part of our motivation is to apply financial techniques to sports,” says Shen, who writes for the basketball website Hooponomics. “We found that when you evaluate players in basketball, it all depends on the players you already have on your team. When you have a stock, you want to see how that stock fits into your existing portfolio.”

Chris Walters presents “To Tank or Not to Tank”

Chris Walters and Tyler Williams, doctoral candidates in the Department of Economics, presented “To Tank or Not to Tank? Evidence from the NBA,” which asked two NBA-related questions: what is the value of receiving the first pick in the NBA draft, and do teams lose intentionally to secure higher draft positions? The duo used a fixed-effects methodology that teased out causal effects to determine the results.

Zaheer Benjamin ’01, director of financial planning for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, uses analytics to drive all aspects of business strategy, from dynamic ticket pricing to measuring the value of corporate partnerships. A conference spectator who has also worked for the NBA’s Orlando Magic, he sees MIT’s influence in sports analytics continuing to grow.

“Before the NBA, I worked in pharmaceutical analytics. I found that the approaches and disciplines of using data to make decisions–something I learned at MIT–is applicable across all industries. Two-third of teams have a dedicated analytics function on the business side, up from one-third a few years ago. The MIT brand is strong. It’s recognized as a solid business foundation with deep analytic expertise.”

For more information on the 2012 conference, see The 2012 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a.k.a. ‘Dorkapalooza.’

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