Sloan 2015: Our Failure to Communicate

Sloan Conferene 2015
Dov Friedmann
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

Every year, the thousands who congregate in Boston for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference can expect to see some familiar faces. The first name that comes to mind for most would be Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, but Celtics Assistant GM Mike Zarren can’t be too far behind.

Every year, Zarren – along with other panelists during the two-day conference –makes the same crucial point: all the facts and analytics in the world aren’t worth much if you can’t effectively communicate them.

“The numbers don’t speak. The person who speaks is the analyst,” Zarren said during the Basketball Analytics panel. “If you say, ‘I don’t believe the numbers’, probably what you’re really saying is, ‘I don’t believe the guy that is telling me this.”

Common as this theme is, communication remains a problem for the analytics community and, by proxy, the conference.

Every year, the story is the same. Some prominent figure in the NBA world is quoted as saying something about analytics ranging from mildly offensive to outright disparaging, and as soon as those comments hit Twitter, so begins the public shaming ritual. Regardless of the context of what was said or the actual logic behind it, the conversation quickly devolves into, ‘So and so says analytics are dumb, so and so is dumb’.

When Charles Barkley embarked on a rant with, ‘I’ve always believed analytics was crap’ – in response to a tweet by Morey being read on Inside the NBA – a few weeks before Sloan, he was given the same treatment as Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins and others before them. It’s easy to follow a Twitter feed and think you’re seeing more than just your own small world, but Sloan is that small world. Clearly, this was going to come up in Boston. Instead of using the opportunity to discuss why someone would say these sorts of things, some of which were factually incorrect, as Bryan Curtis did this week on Grantland, the conference took on a defensive tone, with snide remarks flying out of analytically-shielded foxholes as those in attendance chuckled.

“It’s like we have this Church of Analytics, and you have to [raise your hand and say], ‘I’m a devoted follower, I’m in,” said Jeff Van Gundy during a session on Innovators and Adopters. Following the analogy, this Church was built during the rise of the blogosphere and social media, likely lending to the self-righteous tone many associate with analytics – a tone this writer is occasionally guilty of himself.

In possible response to Barkley’s ill-conceived definition of analytics, a major theme of the conference became panelists trying to provide an exact definition for analytics. But two questions need to be asked here:

1. Why does it matter how we define analytics?

2. Who cares?

It’s common in the Internet Age for a discussion to devolve into a semantic disagreement, which usually marks the point of no return for rational debate. Many a back-and-forth on Twitter involve two people trying to decide what they’re talking about without actually talking about anything. Best case, everyone either gets exhausted or agrees to disagree and that’s it. Worst case, someone is driving to Temecula. Delving into semantics is a non-starter – no argument in the last decade has been solved by a fancy definition – and it tends to say something about the first person to bring them up. If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation. If you’re losing the debate, break out a dictionary.

What makes it odd for Sloan to become a semantic soirée is nobody at the Boston Convention Center is losing. If there was ever a War of Analytics, it’s long since been over. Rather than gracefully accepting victory and enjoying peacetime, the winning team seems obsessed with total victory. In a community largely made up of a demographic which generally hasn’t dealt with institutional prejudice in daily life, when the cards are unfairly stacked against you for reasons having little to do with the individual, every wrong must be righted and every mind must be changed. They – we – have chosen which hill to defend.

If some people still consider themselves combatants, so be it.

"If you're still ranking offense and defense by points per game, you're lost...and doing a disservice to your readers," said Bleacher Report’s highly-respected writer Howard Beck during a panel on Sports Journalism. Some people are lost and don’t want to be found. Ignorance can be better left behind than dragged along.

The core of analytics isn’t about being right, it’s about having an open mind to ways of being right. Not just new ways, but the old ways, too. Thanks to STATS INC and SportVU Cameras, with Catapult’s biometrics on the way, there are terabytes of new data to play with. And because we live in a wonderful world, we didn’t have to clear room for that data by deleting the memories of the many executives, coaches and players.

One of the stars of the conference this year and participant in multiple panels was Shane Battier. Long considered, ever since Michael Lewis’ 2009 article in the New York Times, a poster-boy for analytics, what gets forgotten at times with Battier is that analytics aren’t some cure-all that made him good. They simply helped him to do his job better.

“Analytics are a tool, just like a jump shot or strength training,” Battier said.

Some will choose to use those tools and others won’t, but it’s a tool, not a weapon. There’s no fight to finish. The toolbox is only ever going to grow in new and exciting ways.

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has far from outlived its usefulness, but it has worn out its own name. Students will continue to bring their resumes, vendors will bring their products and industry people will bring varying degrees of a willingness to talk, while the conference becomes increasingly more diverse in the number of sports it covers, if not in those who attend. But the term analytics has become redundant with sports. There will never be sports without some form of analytics. This is simply a Sports Conference.

Just as the walls of snow will eventually melt around Boston, so too will the barriers imposed by both sides of the debate. How quickly that happens is up to all those involved.

In the middle of the conference’s first day, the name of one misguided panel asked, ‘Is Analytics Taking the Joy Out of Sports?’ But analytics are just numbers and information. They don’t speak or argue or debate. They don’t hate or love. It’s the people who matter, just as it’s always been.

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