Sloan Conference, Day #2: "The Lockout is Dead, Long Live the Lockout"

Hey, folks! This year, I'm covering the Sloan Sports Conference straight from Boston's Convention and Exhibition Center. If you're there, be on the lookout for the tall guy in a suit who hasn't slept in a decade. Over the duration of the conference, I'm going to try to post some quick reflections on the panels I attended. Fun stuff, right? Here are the panels covered in the post, thus far:

  • 9:00-10:00 -- "THE CHANGING NATURE OF OWNERSHIP" In this panel, Peter Keating-- from ESPN the Magazine -- asked questions about how ownership is changing over time and the challenges of owning teams. I responded by spitting like an alpaca and neighing like @horse_ebooks. It was a weird moment, I admit.
  • 10:20-11:20 -- "BIG DATA: LESSONS FOR SPORTS" A bunch of experts on Big Data -- people from HP, MIT, m6d, and other specialists -- got together to talk a bit about big data. I spend a bit of time recalling prior experiences with Big Data conferences and generally express appreciation for the overall tact taken by the presenters. ... Even if the overall panel was a bit forgettable.
  • 11:40-12:40 -- "ESPN'S USE OF ANALYTICS IN STORYTELLING" Michael Smith headed a panel including Tom Haberstroh, Dean Oliver, Alok Pattani, and Mike Sando in a discussion of how ESPN uses analytics and statistical data in storytelling. Although Haberstroh was the Bledsoe of the panel (thanks for the joke, @kpelton), it was a really fun look at how ESPN has attempted to incorporate more statistical thoughts and methods into their work. I reflect on the general themes.

• • •

9:00-10:00 -- THE CHANGING NATURE OF OWNERSHIP

A panel with Adam Silver, Jonathan Kraft, Stan Kasten, and John Skipper discuss how ownership is changing in the NBA.

Ever been in a class where you're trying really hard to pay close attention, but you can't seem to shake the nagging feeling that your professor isn't being entirely forthcoming? Your eyes start to gloss over, the machinations start turning in the back of your head, and you find yourself lagging behind and intractably stuck in befuddlement at statements you simply can't figure out. You'll have to excuse me. I didn't cover the lockout from the ground floor, and I've never had a chance to listen to Silver or Stern speak before. They're smart, smart guys. But some of the quotes from this panel were simply incredible. From the first 20 minutes alone:

  • "As you know, we were completely upfront with all of our true numbers about team losses during the lockout."
  • "We all agree that profits are the focus of owning a sports team, rather than resale value."
  • "Here's the problem with Forbes -- which neither Adam or I believe. I have no idea how they come up with their valuations."

My short response to each of these statements: ... w-what?

A bit longer: what, you mean the team loss numbers that made absolutely no sense and were quickly picked apart by several prominent business writers? If profits are ACTUALLY the sole focus of sports owners, they're being obscenely stupid businessmen. Owning a team is valuable for the cache and ego inherent in general ownership, not the X's and O's of making a marginal profit on a year-to-year basis. And the resale value IS the big thing, even if the people on the panel all rejected the entire concept that it was a worthy discussion topic. On a much larger level, it's like owning a house in a city you don't really like. You may not love the city, and you may know with absolute certainty you're never going to pay in full that 30-year mortgage. But you DO know that when you decide to sell, even if it's at a relatively bad market period, you'll make back a decent amount of what you invested in the house (plus or minus a bit) and make up for a decent number of your year-to-year losses.

If you improved the house, maybe you'll make a bit more. If it fell into disrepair, maybe you lose a bit more. But you take out the mortgage knowing that you're building equity instead of simply lighting money on fire with massive rent payments. Teams are similar. Resale isn't just an important topic to discuss, it's arguably the only topic to discuss when you're assessing franchise valuations. Finally, as for the Forbes data... they've been relatively upfront about stating that their franchise valuations comes from the rough market value of everything that team owns. It's really disingenuous to imply that they're a completely mysterious black box with absolutely no logical backing. The land, the team quality (measured through revenues), the stadiums, the television contracts, et cetera. It's not a completely public formula, but "no idea" is gross oversimplification of their methods.

Regardless. I don't mean to bloviate, but this was a hard panel to sit through. And to be completely honest with you, the panel completely lost me at forty minutes into the presentation. I almost left the room. The owners turned to the subject of lockouts, and "who won". The money quotes, from (as Bomani Jones noted) non-billionaires John Skipper and Adam Silver:

"... Nobody won the lockouts." This was followed by a nod of assent and a strong agreement from Adam Silver. Silver then followed with, almost unbelievably... "Look, the players had ENORMOUS leverage during the NBA lockout. Enormous leverage. We never even considered using replacement players. That's leverage. ... We felt 50% was a huge win for the players. That was nowhere near what we went into the negotiations looking for."

OK, Adam. Good talk. As for the rest of you? If you're looking for the big story of the day, I've got four words for you:

There's another lockout coming.

And pillaging victors -- incredibly -- don't think they won the last round.

• • •

10:20-11:20 -- BIG DATA: LESSONS FOR SPORTS

A panel with several big data analysts discuss how big data impacts sports.

I went to a large trade conference late last year. Big Data was a huge subject matter -- I'd say 50-60% of the seminars and sessions were related to big data and the various insights and uses of big data. Spoiler alert: it was the worst conference I've ever attended. Under the bright lights of the conference stage, the concept became this comically broad abstraction. "Solve your problems with big data. Analyze better with big data. Be careful with big data ... but only if you're using this product that you need to approach big data because if you don't use big data you'll die a painful everlasting death." It was excruciating, especially as an analyst who's dealt with several real-life manifestations of "big data" in research I've done and seen. There was virtually nothing of value amidst all the hubbub.

Ever since, I've tried to seek out big data panels, mostly in an effort to find something better. ANYTHING better. Perhaps better isn't the right word -- the best word for what I want isn't better, it's realistic. There are a lot of inherent issues in using massive gobs of data to try and approach problems. Having that kind of data can be extremely helpful to the clever analyst, if you have the right mindset and the right understanding of the inherent hazards you're exposing yourself to when you try to use data that massive. The problem isn't that it can't be helpful, the problem's that it won't always be. There's an incredibly large amount of noise in data that's that humongous, and while you can get a lot of value if you increase the burden of proof and keep a strong eye to sample size and logical reasoning, you can just as easily take a problem and make it an intractable mess of noise-puffing mush. You can make your analysis completely useless. With that in mind, early in the presentation, Chris Selland shared this particular gem:

"If you torture data enough, you can get any answer you want. We have to be careful"

My response? THANK YOU! If the entire panel was simply the panelists getting up, reciting that quote, dropping the mic and fleeing the room with abandon... it still would be more useful than the aforementioned trade conference! You can show specific methodologies and share new technology all you want. If you don't apply the proper context and warn the audience of the method's drawbacks, you're doing a fundamental disservice to the point and use of overwhelming amounts of data. You have to transform, structure, and regulate your data to effectively use large data analytics. You have to clean your data, you have to scale the data to answer your questions. Big data is a method to solve problems -- it's not the be-all and end-all of problem solving. As a whole, the panel wasn't anything particularly special. It was simultaneously a very high-level discussion that was significantly more useful to people with experience in the field. But -- and perhaps this is just my bad experiences before -- I much appreciated the way the presenters generally embraced uncertainty while supporting hypothesis-driven analytics and smart use of big data methodologies. It's a common theme in academic circles and a rare theme in trade circles -- Sloan exists in the hazy boundary between the two, and it's nice that they took a bit of the best of both worlds to put together the Big Data panel.

• • •

11:40-12:40 -- ESPN'S USE OF ANALYTICS IN STORYTELLING

A panel discussing how ESPN uses statistics and analytics to tell stories. Starred Tom Haberstroh, Dean Oliver, Michael Smith, Mike Sando, and Alok Pattani.

To start the presentation, ESPN provided a neat little video showing about five minutes of clips from various ESPN shows. The theme was simple: demonstrate places that ESPN uses statistics in storytelling. There were a lot of different examples, from Skip Bayless to Jay Bilas to Numbers Never Lie. But the general goal was to express ESPN's growing comfort level with using statistical thought to support on-air arguments. Their on-air talent has bought in -- to some extent -- to the use of statistical facts and figures to tell stories and share findings. The money quote from Pattani: "It's like value-added to your IQ." The overall attitude towards statistical thought has changed in the organization -- the world has changed, and if you use statistics to dispel myths, you can get a strong response from the viewers.

Which, in general, was what the ESPN panel was about -- how can you get a stronger educational product on national TV? ESPN isn't always on top of the game, but the panel was extremely elucidating. They put together a group with a bunch of the network's best analytic journalists and let them discuss the implications of what they do. They try to dispel myths, give proper context, and give credibility and cache to the numbers they use. It's about trying to educate fans without being snippy and self-superior. It's about making the numbers part of the popular conception, and using statistics that shed light on the games in fun and interesting ways. "Criticize on a higher level."

Adding statistical analysis to popular sporting discourse isn't about simply showing other people you're smarter than they are. It's about changing the universe fans get exposed to. You're building the starfield, the galaxy, the rocketship. You're inspiring curiosity and enticing the reader to use statistics and numbers to illuminate their fandom.

• • •

I'll try to make these a bit smoother and a bit quicker to the uptake -- if you missed it, I actually finished editing all of yesterday's panel discussion early this morning. Go check that out, if you get the chance. I'm on to the next session. More later.

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