by Wes Chappell, CSL Graduate Student
The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) in Boston, MA. SSAC is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the intersection of analytics and the sports industry where fans, students, athletes, and professionals from around the world come together to show off innovative ways that technology and data are being used to advance every facet of sports. The stars of this year’s conference included Alan Silver, Mark Cuban, Daryl Morey, and Billy Beane, amongst many others. I arrived in Boston anxious and unsure of what to expect from my first SSAC, but I returned to Richmond inspired by all of the brilliant people I met and heard,
feeling even more anxious and excited for the future of the sports industry.
The experience was surreal and surpassed my expectations. You’re surrounded by media personalities (Jackie McMullan, Darren Rovell, and Nate Silver), professional athletes (Sue Bird and Shane Battier), GMs from the MLB, NBA, and NFL, as well as executives from companies involved in sports analytics. Almost everyone was very approachable and willing to chat with the attendees. I frequently saw Daryl Morey casually walking amongst the crowd throughout the weekend.
For example, I met a speaker from a panel on the future of soccer analytics, Hendrik Almstadt, who spent five years on the football operations group at Arsenal FC and currently works in player relations with the PGA European Tour. After picking his brain about soccer and Arsenal, he invited me to sit with him during the next panel on overcoming cognitive bias in player management, featuring Billy Beane. Beane emphasized the importance of making decisions based on objective data rather than subjective observations and gut feelings. These tactics led to his success as the EVP of the Oakland Athletics, as featured in the best-selling book and hit movie, Moneyball.
Some of my favorite panels and presentations I attended, in addition to Beane’s Moneymind: Overcoming Cognitive Bias, were Juggling Expectations: The Emergence of Soccer Analytics, Transforming Big Data into Compelling Insights by SAP, Shark vs Fox: Politics and Forecasting in the Time of the Hedgehog featuring the uncensored Mark Cuban, and Sustaining Greatness featuring Sue Bird. Bird explained how advanced technology and training techniques have helped extend her career, as she’s still competing at a high level in the WNBA at age 36. I particularly loved her response when asked how she felt about her prolonged career destroying the dreams of 21-year-old athletes hoping to break into the WNBA – she frankly exclaimed: “I don’t care!”.
In addition to the insightful and interesting presentations, SSAC serves as an excellent opportunity for networking and career development for young professionals and students. I took advantage of resume reviews and informal interview sessions where I connected with professionals from the NFL, Jacksonville Jaguars, The Madison Square Garden Company, and Monumental Sports and Entertainment. There are also research paper and case competitions available to graduate students. I hope to see the CSL competing in one of these competitions in the future!
Here is my biggest takeaway from the weekend: I can’t emphasize enough how important this conference is to the sports industry and how invaluable it is to anyone interested in sports regardless of whether they’re into analytics or not. This is the direction that we are headed with all aspects of the industry: coaching and player development, front office management, sports media, sales and marketing, merchandising, collegiate, professional, etc. I think anyone would leave SSAC with a positive outlook even if they aren’t well versed in statistics or have a strong technical background. I highly recommend SSAC to any sports-enthusiasts reading this post, ESPECIALLY future CSL students! Lastly, I can’t thank the CSL enough for giving me the opportunity to attend this conference. This will surely stand out as a highlight amongst the many real-world experiences I’ve had in my two years of the program!