How MIT’s Sloan Conference became the epicenter of the sports analytics movement

When the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference gets underway next month in Boston, a bevy of the brightest thinkers from across the industry will come armed with ideas, papers and perceptions on how leaders in that sector can adapt and improve.

Founded in 2006 by Daryl Morey, the Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, and Jessica Gelman, CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, the conference has become ground zero for the sports analytics movement. Each year, the conference delves into a list of mathematical and social dilemmas facing sports heady enough to intimidate the most mathematically-inclined of attendees.

It’s also become a carousel of big names. 

Think of Sloan as the Davos of the sports world. 

Former President Barack Obama, author Malcolm Gladwell, statistician Nate Silver, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, and Oakland Athletics’ executive Billy Beane — to name just a few — are the type of A-listers who have spoken before past attendees, a veritable who’s who of sports power brokers that includes league executives, team owners, GMs, athletes, celebrities and media heavyweights.

All of this has made Sloan, which began as a class at MIT, something very rare indeed: A sports, networking and intellectual brew with enough ingredients in the strange alchemy of success to turn this conference into a master class, and catalyst, for the next wave of sports executives.

The key to breaking into the upper echelon of the sports world is mysterious. Few crack it. But for those with an eye toward someday being a powerbroker in the world of American sports, Sloan is equal parts intellectual conference and top-notch networking event.

Put simply: If you want to take a shot at making it in the business, get yourself to Boston on March 3-4 for the conference (more info here). 

“I’m biased to believe that, but I’m quite certain that’s true,” Morey said. “There are so many people who have worked on or attended the conference who have gone on to this success. It’s become a part of the fabric of sports.”

Students who have planned and led past conferences — and who attendees got to know in advance of career success — have gone on to work in front offices in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB. They have leadership roles in professional teams and places like Nike and Amazon. Numerous other attendees have turned conventions, and the conversations they spawn, into job opportunities. 

Topics like the mathematical reality of how NBA players do or don’t optimally position themselves or tracking data that lets researchers better quantify the true, often unseen, value of NFL players can be heady, insightful stuff. But there’s also a lot of power just roaming the hallways, mixing for drinks and dinner afterward, and the exchange of phone numbers that can unlock one of sports’ most heavily-guarded entry ways — that path to the inside.

Amy Howe is the CEO of FanDuel, which makes her one of the most powerful executives in sports. This is the company that spent $120 million on Pat McAfee. It plucked Kay Adams from Good Morning Football for her own show. And it will likely help shape the sports-gambling hybrid that is a gigantic part of the future of sports.

All of which is to say she’s a good person to know. And the best shot to get to know her is probably at the conference. 

“There’s something very special about the partnership that Jessica and Daryl have as well that continues to elevate this conference,” Howe said. “They’re two of the most beloved and networked people in the industry. So I can tell you we all are very much committed to this. 

“This is one, I can tell you for myself and peers in similar positions at other companies, it’s one we prioritize because it brings us real value,” she said.

When discussing Sloan, Morey and Gelman both marvel out loud in conversation about how a class students took over winter break has morphed into a networking bonanza and must-attend event. And that’s why those who help lead the conference, recognizing its growth and cache and how it has evolved over the years, have turned an eye toward focusing on people of color and women.

It’s a concerted effort today to see a more inclusive executive ranks in big-time sports years from now.

“When it comes to diversity, we think analytics can be a great equalizer,” Gelman said. “Because it isn’t just about who you know. It’s rooted in data and information and thoughtfulness — applications to drive business and sports results. We believe very firmly that with what we know and see in the sports industry, we can help create change. And we’re trying.”

It is indeed both — the math, and the answers that wait to be unlocked, yes. But also the human connections that can open the door to sports’ boardrooms, front offices, business and other corridors of power.

Those efforts include a women’s luncheon that began five years ago. A mentorship program. A resume reviews program — “career speed dating” — as Gelman put it.

But one of the primary benefits of Sloan, whether for students or the merely ambitious, is the ability to be surrounded for two days by a who’s who of the sports world. 

“Be very present in the hallways,” Morey suggested. “Talk to the research-paper people. Talk to the people who are in the hallway sponsoring, or showing off their companies. Obviously going to the panels is cool, but the way you maximize is finding out about the events and dinners and the future leaders.”

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