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Data-Driven: MIT infuses the rise of sports analytics

Follow the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Feb. 28-March 1 in Boston, via social media and webcast. Tickets are sold out.
Political analyst and author Nate Silver (left) and Daryl Morey MBA ’00 speak at last year's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Political analyst and author Nate Silver (left) and Daryl Morey MBA ’00 speak at last year's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Photo courtesy of MIT Sloan School of Management

In 2007, Daryl Morey MBA ’00 convened a small one-day conference of about 175 MIT students, sports fans, and professionals. The sessions, held in MIT classrooms, focused on a niche topic: sports analytics, or the use of advanced statistics to employ data-driven strategy in athletics.

Nearly seven years later, thanks in part to the success of that conference, the topic has exploded in relevance, and the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) has positioned MIT as a pivotal part of the burgeoning sports analytics industry.

“We held the first conference at MIT basically because I was an alum and they were supportive,” says Morey, the SSAC co-chair who, in 2004, helped the MIT Sloan School of Management initiate one of the first MBA programs with a sports analytics course. “Today, analytics, sports, and MIT makes perfect sense.”

The two-day conference annually attracts a sold-out audience of nearly 3,000 attendees that includes more than 300 owners, players, and representatives from the highest-level professional teams in the U.S. and Europe.

Morey is perhaps the most well-known MIT alum working in professional sports — he is general manager and managing director of basketball operations for the NBA’s Houston Rockets — but he is not alone. Most teams in the U.S.’s top professional leagues have created analytic-specific positions to help determine in-game and business strategy, and MIT alumni are filling some of those positions.

“More alumni are getting involved in sports because the analytical skillset is becoming more valuable and more appreciated,” says Brian Bilello ’97, president of the New England Revolution soccer team. “I studied chemical engineering, but MIT didn’t necessarily train me to be a chemical engineer. They trained me to solve chemical engineering problems, and I can apply that perspective to my job with the Revolution.”

Sports teams now use analytics to provide a deeper level of analysis. In baseball, front offices that once relied on well-known stats like home runs and runs batted in now place greater emphasis on advanced metrics like VORP (value over replacement player), a calculation created by Keith Woolner ’90 that demonstrates how much a player contributes to his team in comparison to a near-average replacement player at the same position.

After graduating from MIT, Woolner worked in software development and system management in Silicon Valley for more than a decade. As a hobby, he wrote stat-heavy articles for Baseball Prospectus (BP), an organization devoted to advanced statistics. In 2007, he parlayed his analysis to a position with the Cleveland Indians, where he works as director of baseball analytics and focuses on metrics for player valuation and game strategy.

“I always viewed my writing as being more of a scientist — I gathered information and presented it,” Woolner says. “In the early days at BP, we were very much the outsiders. By the time I joined Cleveland, I came into an organization that was data-driven and had buy-in towards analytics.”

Read the full the Slice of MIT article to see what other MIT alumni are doing — including Zaheer Benjamin MBA ’03, vice president of business planning and basketball analytics for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and Farhan Zaidi ’98, the Oakland Athletics’ director of baseball operations.

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