This post is part of my ongoing coverage of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for Howler Magazine.
The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has now wrapped up - a tornado of 20 hours of stats, networking, two live BS Reports from Bill Simmons, and a whole lot of one liners from guys like Drew Carey and Mark Cuban. The second day lived up to the hyped billing in my book, and served as a great capstone for another great conference.
|Starting the day off on the right... er, left foot.|
Post-match it was time to head over to the Hynes Center for my first SSAC panel of the morning: "Franchises in Transition". It was intended to highlight franchises that were either rebuilding or had rebuilt themselves after some sort of traumatic on- or off-field event. Brian Burke from the Toronto Maple Leaf's was scheduled to be on the panel, but business needs required him to leave the conference on Friday night. Seattle Sounders co-owner Drew Carey was Burke's replacement, and it can't be understated how big of an upgrade Drew was to the panel based upon Burke's surly performances on Friday.
|2012 SSAC "Franchises in Transition" Panel|
The panel itself was interesting in its undertones regarding fan relationships. Several of the franchise representatives came across with statements that made it seem like fans were more to be managed than engaged, or at least engagement was simply one way to manage fans with the underlying goal being profitability. Two panelists stood out as diametrically opposed to this concept, with their attitudes being shaped by events off the field of play.
Rita Benson LeBlanc, owner of the New Orleans Saints, talked of how the Saints become a rallying point for the city after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This responsibility was recognized by the Saints organization, and impacted the way they recruited players. LeBlanc talked of how family was very important to the organization and the city. While Drew Brees showed great upside coming off an injury prior to joining the Saints, it was the intangible asset of him placing a similar priority on family and feeling at home with the Saints from the first workout that sealed the deal for the organization. The family atmosphere you see during Saint's pre-game huddles and in the stands is not fake. It is ingrained in the team's culture, which one could readily see when LeBlanc teared up at the end of her explanation of raising a banner for the fans after a particularly successful season.
The eye opening moment for many attendees listening to the "Franchises in Transition" panel came when Drew Carey explained the Sounder's business model in relation to the fans. Recognizing the city was traumatized by the departure of the Sonics, Carey was the driving force behind the team's fan-centric creation and bylaws. In a nod to elections of club leadership at clubs like Barcelona, Carey got club leadership to buy into the idea that season ticket holders would be able to vote out the team's general manager every four years if they didn't like his or her performance. Carey pushed for regular interaction with season ticket holders, recounted how a fan vote was what determined the name of the club, and how the focus of the team was to engage fans in their local environs - pubs, message boards, blogs - before a single game had been played. Such interactions set a culture of fan engagement that continues today. Carey's view that fans who have an ownership and management stake in a club are more like to stay committed during rough times resonated with the panelists who may not have known about the Sounders' approach prior to the panel. Their reactions indicated the continued value in having MLS and EPL participation in the conference, as these representatives can provide very different perspectives on team management philosophies than major US sports leagues.
Carey's frankness and lack of political correctness on the panel was refreshing. In explaining why fans should be empowered to judge the GM's performance, he pointed out that we're asked to vote for judges in elections, and nobody really knows why they should vote for one candidate or the other. The clear implication is that season ticket holders often know way more about their club than local judges, so why shouldn't we trust the wisdom of crowds in helping to run our clubs? Carey bluntly explained that the lack of parity of some leagues can be chalked up to a number of owners caring more about making money than actually spending what it takes to win and give the fans the championships they deserve. His response to those types of owners is, "I'm glad they're there, because it means we can beat them all the time." When questioned if winning games was enough to make money in sports, he quipped, "I could sell cocaine and make money, but I want to sleep at night." After the laughter in the room died down, he went on to explain that establishing a culture of common ownership in a club was key to being financially successful through the ups and downs. Every time Carey made a one liner he got a hearty laugh out of the crowd, which was a great break from the "don't rock the boat" approach taken by many of the other panelists throughout the weekend.
Tony Riali of Around the Horn fame was the panel moderator, so the end of the session inevitably turned into a "Buy or Sell" segment. Thankfully Riali didn't play it safe and asked about promotion and relegation first thing. All of the panelists sold on the concept (or rejected it for those who don't watch Around the Horn). Each gave reasons having to do with economics, but Carey was the only one who gave a nuanced answer in the slightest. He sold the concept in the near term, but expressed his appreciation for the European business model and hoped that sometime in the next 50 years MLS would adopt promotion and relegation once it becomes financially possible to do so.
Daryl Morey's role as one of the GM's who passed on Jeremy Lin became the focus of the player analytics discussion in the panel. Morey was able to make the only overt reference to a statistical term I heard from the major panels all weekend, describing missing out on Jeremy Lin as a Type II error. Morey claimed there are actually 20 to 25 Lins in every draft, and the likelihood of a team missing them is high. This is due to the fact that the real enabler to Lin's success is the randomness of playing time opportunity due to player injuries. It wasn't until Lin had the opportunity to play due to the injuries of more traditional starters that he was able to display his capabilities and seized the most of the moment. There is very little stats can do for a club if the player isn't given the opportunity to generate them, especially if most of their non-game performances appear similar to other players who normally ride the bench.
The concept of opportunity came up again when the panel was asked when it was appropriate to make a short term deal and pay more for a player at the expense of the club's long-term goals. The clear answer from the panel was that such a move should only be considered when the club only needs one or two pieces to make the leap to a championship caliber team that season. Morey pointed out that analytics help the team determine when they're at that point, and protect against a coach or GM who believes they're perennially close to a championship and thus willing to continually sacrifice the team's long term health. While Carey pointed out that MLS's limited resources prevents many teams from pursuing such an approach, I can't help but feel that the Sounders' deal for Eddie Johnson was born out of such a belief that he's the final piece of their offensive puzzle needed to win an MLS Cup. Drew Carey closed the panel with a recitation of the reasons for the Sounders success, and then all of the panelists posed for pictures.
There was a one-and-a-half hour break for me until the Soccer Analytics panel, so I grabbed some lunch and spoke with a few of the soccer analysts at the conference. I was also lucky enough to secure an interview with Drew Carey later in the day, so I used the break to prepare questions.
The soccer analytics panel kicked off at 1 PM. All of the panelists were new for this year except for Steven Houston, although even Houston had switched clubs (from Chelsea to Hamburg FC in the Bundesliga). Mark Steyn reprised his role as moderator.
To be honest, the panel discussed many of the same themes as the 2011 panel (you can read my review of the 2011 panel here). The challenge with public discussion of soccer analytics lies in the economics of the game. Given that European clubs are run like independent businesses, they're loathe to publicly disclose any of the details of the models or analytics they're using. MLS's analytics are still in the nascent stage given their limited economic means. This means that a panel that was populated with club representatives and one TV analyst (Alexi Lalas) was very light on discussion of actual analytics. This stands in stark contrast to many other presentations at the conference, and will limit the interest in future soccer analytics panels until the issue is resolved. I spoke to a number of SSAC representatives after the panel and recommended that in future years they include at least one, if not two, representatives not tied to clubs. Such panelists should be people doing highly public analysis that they're free and willing to openly discuss. While their analysis may not be as advanced as some of the work being done by the clubs who have access to far more detailed data, there is value in someone being on the panel who can discuss actual analyses and numbers that will be largely right in their conclusions. If nothing else it will force the club representatives to respond and open up a bit more by either agreeing with the points being brought up or disagree with some data. They could always disagree without citing any data, but then it would just make them look like their hiding something.
Given the panel's lightness in terms of actual analytics, there were some more general observations made in their impact on the game that had value. Steven Houston posited that the lower player movement and emphasis on short term loans over the last year bodes well for the use of data, because it will force players to perform to the terms of a short term contract rather than the security of a longer-term one. Everton, Fulham, Chelsea, and Manchester City in the EPL and Dortmund and Hamburg in the Bundesliga were singled out as the biggest users of data in those two leagues. Drew Carey emphasized the fact that the Sounders being located in Seattle and the number of technical/software companies in the city helps the team build a culture around data analysis. Alexi Lalas provided some good personal stories of how his career intersecting with the boom in VHS tape use provided him with analysis capabilities to improve his own game. This is a topic that will be explored in more depth when I post my interview of Lalas later this week.
The consistent message from the panel was that analytics were just one element of the total team management model, and that to gain acceptance they need to be sold to club management by experienced individuals. Younger analysts who may believe numbers provide the complete answer can set the application of soccer analytics back if management perceives recommendations to be coming from inexperienced practitioners. The European representatives on the panel emphasized their greatest use of analytics is in screening the 10,000+ players available on the worldwide market, enabling more targeted use of limited scouting resources. The panelists were in agreement that the use of tactical analytics was rather limited compared to player evaluation. Emphasizing the idea of knowledge networks leading to continuous improvement, Carey talked of the Sounders' utilization of friendlies as a way to learn about how bigger clubs use analytics. We also learned from the panel that while application of analytics to youth teams is almost non-existent in the UK due concerns about publicly available data on underage players, there is an emerging set of rules in the FA that will require academies keep such data. The overall goal is to improve the evaluation of youth players, especially in a Financial Fair Play constrained world.
As the panel closed I was lucky enough to get a five minute interview with Drew Carey for an article I am writing on the Sounders. After the Carey interview I took some time to organize my notes and talk with a few more soccer analysts, biding my time until the live BS Report with Bill Simmons and Mark Cuban.
|Mark Cuban, post-BS Report with the SSAC Staff|
He went on to claim "the commissioner doesn't know what he's doing." He told a room full of MBA students, many of which I would assume are specializing in sports management, that "sports management is the new rocks for jocks". He refuses to hire people with sports management degrees unless they can demonstrate truly unique ideas in that field. Maverick employees who start the wave are liable to be fired, and when it comes to trades only he, Don Nelson, and coach Rick Carlisle are in the know so as to prevent leaks. Cuban explained that he's not selling basketball, but rather unique fan experiences based upon collective participation. As he explained, his arena is the only place where a random fan will be able to high five a guy like him after a great play when everyone knows that fan wouldn't get the owner's attention if they passed each other on the street. It's this desire for collective fan engagement throughout the game that leads Cuban to not install WiFi in the Maverick's Arena. His concern is a fan absorbed in their phone or iPad is one less fan yelling, screaming, and high fiving. The Maverick's strategy in last year's NBA Finals was discussed, with emphasis placed on the confidence that was built in the team by showing the players instant analytical assessments of what they were doing right in the early games of the series. Cuban closed with an excellent discussion on why the future of TV is bright. If SSAC ever posts a video of the chat I will post a link and will highly recommend you check it out.
The end of the BS session also marked the end of the conference. The Hynes Center emptied rather quickly, with the stragglers being the people interested in getting a picture with Mark Cuban (confession: I was one of those people). The ending seemed to come abruptly. After 48 hours of organized activities and a regimented SSAC schedule there was suddenly freedom to do whatever I liked. I ended the evening where I started the weekend. Listening to some good punk rock, I consumed a few beers and chili dogs at McGreevy's while soaking up the insights of Matt Booher. Matt and I had only met on Friday, but we had a great hour long conversation about the game of soccer, analytics, our own lives, and his love for Aston Villa. After panels and meet ups full of people, it was very refreshing to have a deeper conversation with a single person. It provided a great balance and ending to a very fun weekend. At one point I paused for a moment and thought that I was the luckiest sports fan on earth based upon my experiences at and around the conference. I think 2199 other individuals may be thinking the same thing right now.