Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell, And The Dirty Secret Of The MIT Sports Analytics Conference

The Joke That Started It All
Shortly after 9 a.m. Friday, in a big gray conference room in a big gray convention center, 1,500 people—mostly white, mostly male, mostly clad in business suits—roar with laughter. Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks and Rockets coach and current ESPN analyst, has just cracked wise. Jeff Van Gundy has called Bonzi Wells fat.

Bonzi Wells played 591 NBA games, for five different teams, from 1998 until 2008. He scored 7,147 points in his career, 438 points less than Kobe Bryant scored from 2005-08. He played in 48 playoff games, and was twice traded for Bobby Jackson. And he was fat, particularly so when he signed in Houston toward the end of his NBA career.

Here is how Van Gundy puts it. He is talking about player traits in general. "He can be soft, selfish, and stupid," he says. One of those things, Van Gundy can deal with. "But not two."
Someone in the panel mentions Bonzi Wells.

"Oh," Van Gundy says, "I should add 'fat' to that list."

The room erupts. And so begins MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

The Rise Of The White Guys In Suits
Let's just say it straight away: The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is not a conference about sports analytics.

Rather, it is a parade of reasonably famous sports creatures, all of them rich and powerful and esteemed, and 10 years ago many of them were just like you. We've followed the rise of Theo Epstein, Jon Daniels, and, oh, Daryl Morey, who graduated from Sloan and founded the conference. We know Morey's story: went to business school, got a consulting gig, helped the Celtics' new owners evaluate their deal, joined the Boston front office, poached to run the Rockets in a few years' time. The conference might as well feature a "BEFORE" and "AFTER" photo, with a tie-wearing, droopy-eyed Daryl in the first one and Morey dunking on Rafer Alston in the second.

Analytics played a large role in their ascent, obviously, but as I will quickly learn, this conference is more about the ascent itself than the complicated and often abstruse means to achieving it. It's an MBA mixer in the guise of a statistics seminar. Everything here carries the faint air of the hustle.

And the idea is taking hold elsewhere: The Wharton School at UPenn is holding its first annual Sports Innovation Conference in April. Among the guests: Caps/Wiz owner Ted Leonsis, former Hawks and Braves president Stan Kasten, and Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman. In other words, it's the Sloan JV team.

Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell, And The Dirty Secret Of The MIT Sports Analytics Conference

So this is the new thing: young white guys in suits (one calls them "dorks" at his own peril) who want to work in sports for much the same reasons that an earlier generation wanted to work on Wall Street.

Which makes it all the more delicious to think that Morey is fleecing the white guys in suits (WGS) the way he did the Spurs for Luis Scola. After all, these WGS are paying a conference registration fee of up to $400 to audition for a tiny pool of low-paying jobs, many of which go to former athletes anyway. (Put in terms they can understand, the number of dorks working in sports will grow only logarithmically from here on out. The second derivative of the dorks is negative in 2011.)

It seems more likely, though—and this is worse—that all of these WGS inevitably will take over professional sports, not just front offices but the teams themselves, and they will do nothing but make the money-sucking monoliths even more ruthless and efficient. Prepare for the continued rise of the cult of cost efficiency.

Oh, And The Sports Fella Is The Daryl Morey Of Journalism
Bill Simmons, the Sports Fella, is a brand somehow still swelling. He was the star of the conference he dubbed "Dorkapalooza," even though he has no background in sports management, science, or statistics, and even though he published (while at the conference!) a delightful parable decrying the greed of NFL owners that one day will be abetted by the very WGS in attendance here in Boston.

And guess what? He's on the hustle, too, but not like the dorks. We will get to that in a moment.

Big Time
This is the fifth annual Sloan conference, its second time in the sprawling Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (the first three were on the MIT campus), and its first time as a two-day event. Mike Zarren, the Celtics' assistant executive director of basketball operations, says that the faces in the Sloan crowd have changed—93 percent of the first conference's attendees wore pocket protectors, he jokes. The WGS don't wear pocket protectors. They wear cologne.

And unlike the first conference, which was headlined by JP Ricciardi (now special assistant to the Mets GM) and Jamie McCourt (who will soon own exactly half of the Los Angeles Dodgers), this thing is star-studded: twice I ran into Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri (who was a paying attendee, not a panelist) in the bathroom, and quasi-celebs like Michael Wilbon and Mike Leach could be found milling around in the lobby.

More sightings:

• Eric Mangini in the panelist room asking nicely for an MBA student to find him a Diet Coke.
• Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis Colts, conference attendee, not speaker. None of the panels I attended, though, focused on "Why Not To Take A Timeout With Your Opponent Trailing, On The 32-Yard Line And 29 Seconds Left."
• In the agenda insert: "'The Decision' panel: Bill Polian will no longer be able to participate. Donny Marshall has been added as a panelist." Not even Donyell Marshall. Donny Marshall. Maybe not everyone was a star.
• Andrea Kremer, intrepid chronicler of Deadspin, who led the weekend's most lively panel, on the business of sports.
Rob Neyer, rocking one hell of a Hawaiian shirt.
• This guy, playing what I'm nearly certain is World of Warcraft:

Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell, And The Dirty Secret Of The MIT Sports Analytics Conference

The Outlier
Plus there is Napkin Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and bestselling author of books you read on airplanes, who normally commands an $80,000 speaking fee. (Sloan does not compensate any of its panelists, so it makes sense that Gladwell skips town right after the panel.) He moderates a panel on "Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours," the same panel in which Van Gundy drops the Bonzi bomb, and he effortlessly does that thing we probably now call "Gladwellian," wherein he explains the NBA by referencing the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney's office, right-wing psychologists, and Dolph Lundgren (not Schayes).

Bashing Gladwell's methodology, especially in Outliers, is trite and tiring. (If you want some meaningful critiques, people far smarter than I will happily oblige.) And, to be fair, he is moderating the panel, asking questions of the panelists, rather than offering his own points. But one still wonders why the modern king of pop psychology and pseudoscience has been invited to a conference that has "analytics" in its name. Gladwell may consider himself a fellow-traveler, but all he's shown so far is bad taste in analytical muses. It's sort of telling when the MBA student who organized the Gladwell panel introduces Napkin by saying that his multiple New York Times bestsellers indicate that he's at the forefront of contemporary thought, which is kind of like saying that Delmon Young's 112 RBIs indicate that he's at the forefront of contemporary baseball.

(One also wonders why Gladwell and Simmons are turning up everywhere together, be-jeaned and be-blazered, regardless of how appropriate the venue might be. They were at the New Yorker Festival in October, at the NBA All-Star Weekend Technology Summit three weeks ago, and now at Sloan. They've toured more in the last six months than the White Stripes have in the last three years.)

Van Gundy and Gladwell devote much of the panel to discussing why Tracy McGrady failed, all while McGrady's analytics-savvy ex-GM offers little to explain his superstar's shortcomings. No one in the audience, of course, should believe that Morey lacks a data-driven hypothesis regarding McGrady. But there isn't much room for it on a panel that also kind of awkwardly includes Justin Tuck, who talks about his Alabama high school basketball rivals Gerald Wallace and Jamario Moon more than he does about football.

Already, in the conference's first panel, two of its most damning weaknesses have manifested themselves: Tuck, Gladwell, and Van Gundy don't discuss high-level analytics, perhaps because they can't, and neither do Morey and athlete training super-guru Mark Verstegen, probably because they'd rather not disclose proprietary information. So instead, we get the decaf analysis that would pass for a frank discussion on Outside the Lines, or something. (And, yeah, the Four-Letter is the conference's sponsor. But that's not too surprising.) There are endless meditations on the wonders of Chuck Hayes. Morey tells a story about Marcus Banks's predraft desire to be a male model. Tuck says Cam Newton shouldn't go first overall. Van Gundy calls Bonzi Wells fat. And soon we all file out of what by the end feels like the biggest sports bar in Boston.

John Walsh, Executive Editor Of ESPN, Is A Man With Some Thoughts
• On the Worldwide Leader: "I've worked for 32 media companies. We beat ourselves up more than any other media company I've seen about how well we perform."
• On LeDecision: "Would we do it again? Of course we would, it had the largest audience of any studio program in the history of the network."
• On the media, asked of Pagliuca: "Why would you pay any attention to the media?"
• On the media, cont'd: "Everything has changed dramatically, with the publication of Moneyball—yet the media doesn't cover analytics. Only now is the media finally catching on to analytics, econometrics, the judgments that are going on in boardrooms."
• On hiring diversity: "Our company has hired the most women in the history of sports media." Replies Andrea Kremer, "Well, you're the largest."

Bill Simmons, Rock Star

Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell, And The Dirty Secret Of The MIT Sports Analytics Conference

Simmons's first panel is the Friday afternoon Referee Analytics panel, on which he sits with NFL ref Mike Carey (who, freakishly, looks no older than 35 in person), Mark Cuban (ditto), Jon Wertheim (co-author of Scorecasting, which we excerpted here), and honest-to-god sabermetrician Phil Birnbaum (who knows whereof he speaks). There's a bit of cynical construction to this panel. Cubes (who, on Friday, wore a shirt that read "Talk Nerdy to Me") is there to talk shit about the refs, but the NBA (really) told him they were watching. So he doesn't say much. And Simmons is there to call out Carey, the referee of Super Bowl XLII, in a playful, shticky fashion. Did you know the Sports Fella is a fan of Boston sports teams, including the Patriots? The WGS know, and they laugh and applaud.

But Simmons's David Tyree jokes seem out of place at a conference supposedly devoted to serious analytics, especially when one panelist has written a comprehensive, numbers-based study of another's numbers-based book. If we're all nerds here, why not put our brains to use? Why not look at some of the Pitch f/x umpire studies? But the crowd doesn't badger Simmons. They lap up the Carey banter.

That Simmons can thrive in this setting and plan a pop-culturey website with Chuck Klosterman and conduct baseball podcasts with Jack-O that make your copy of Moneyball want to light itself on fire shows just how crazy broad his appeal is. Remember the group orgasm enjoyed over at FanGraphs after Simmons spent a column discovering VORP, WAR, and UZR? They weren't responding to the column itself, which, of course, explained that Simmons's fantasy league caused him to rethink things; they were responding to the mere fact of Simmons's benediction.

But I have no doubt that he's serious about this stats stuff, or at least understands its place. Over the weekend, we get word that Simmons — who you'll recall is still staffing up his personal Manhattan Project — may be bringing aboard a guy with serious dork bona fides, Jonah Keri, to write a baseball column. Keri's excellent new book, The Extra 2%, excerpted here, was in gift bags for Sloan panelists—we saw Celtics part-owner Steve Pagliuca eagerly flipping through his copy. (Unsurprisingly, Keri's book, which covers the renaissance of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, focuses on a few WGS, especially Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman, of Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns, respectively. You probably don't associate those firms with our national pastime, grass stains and all, but big-time investment bankers pass for Stan Musial in the Sloan universe.)

Keri would be an excellent fit for The Untitled Bill Simmons Project, and we are nothing if not excited to see what will happen now that Bakes and some other smart, distinctive whippersnappers from around the web (including Vulture's Lane Brown, This Recording's Molly Lambert, GQ's Chris Ryan, and others unknown) have hitched their wagons to Simmons's star. In fact, there's something very Moreyish/Moneyballish about the whole endeavor. Brooklyn writers are the new on-base percentage! We hope no one has to be Jeremy Brown.

The Wisdom Of A Self-Made Man
The only person to challenge the Sports Fella is the conference's only other three-panel superstar: Mark Cuban. "Some people live life in the fast lane, Bill lives life in the past lane," Cuban says, challenging some apparent Simmons nostalgia during the weekend-closing panel on the game-day experience in the age of HD.

This also features Dorkapalooza's dorkiest discussion: a back-and-forth between Cuban and Patriots scion Jonathan Kraft about in-stadium wireless network capacity. Kraft says that the Gillette Stadium gameday experience would someday include all 22 players wired for sound, with individual audio feeds available for mobile devices, and full-stadium WiFi.

Pfft, says Cuban.

"The problem is when you start doing the math," he tells Kraft. "You've got 20,000 people, doing two megabits a second, and it has to be real throughput. Yeah, that's 40 gigabits of sustained throughput. How easy is that?" He pauses, expecting the audience to respond. "Anyone here maintain a network with 40 gigabits of sustained throughput?"

One man, in a sea of dorks, raises his hand. He yells out, "It's really hard."

"Exactly," Cubes says. "You would be managing the kind of network that MIT says is too big." The WGS contingent shudders. The most successful self-made man in the room—a man in whom the conference's pretext (stats!) and subtext (money!) converge—has noted correctly that a technological barrier might thwart brainstormed innovation.

Whoa, say the WGS.

Cuban, I notice, is wearing a sweatshirt.

Photos via Business Insider and MIT Sloan.