The world of sports research has grown exponentially over the past decade, a trend nowhere more apparent than at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the industry’s highest-profile exhibition.
Sloan has ballooned from 175 attendees at its inaugural event in 2007 to nearly 3,000 visitors a year ago at the sprawling Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. (This year’s attendance was slightly lower because of a smaller space, but that wasn’t a function of decreased demand. According to conference organizer Jessica Gelman, the waiting list ran into the thousands.)
The flowering of sports analytics has brought lots of attention, and money, to the field. That’s good and bad. Higher-tech statistics require greater investment, which, in turn, introduces the possibility that leagues will be less willing to share new data with the public.
Several notable data projects have been featured in Sloan’s panels over the years. Just last week, Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) announced an optical-tracking technology to replace the PITCHf/x system. What does this portend for the future of open-source analytics?
MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman gave assurances that “fans will be able to see these data.” I hope that he means history will repeat itself. The original PITCHf/x data was stored in public files, which early pioneers of pitch analysis quickly learned to use. Bloggers and hobbyists did such good work that teams began hiring them; Mike Fast, Josh Kalk and other PITCHf/x gurus jumped into the big leagues (yours truly was hired by the Atlanta Hawks). Thus began a symbiotic relationship between MLB insiders and outsiders, made possible by a willingness to give smart people free data and let them run with it.
But you can’t help but sense the possibility that the next wave of advanced data won’t be as accessible to amateurs. The tug-of-war between intellectual curiosity and monetization serves as a microcosm of what Sloan is about. It exists in the murky territory between trade fairs and academic conferences, a stark change from its earlier, smaller incarnations.
Sloan’s growth has mirrored the growth of sports analytics, but it also underscores the increasing ways in which businesses and teams are looking to profit from a new generation of sports data. I just hope they don’t shut out the public in the process.