For 2017 I was invited to attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as a panelist on their soccer panel. Despite being a huge fan of the conference, I had never attended before as a combination of busy work period and frequent child births meant this was a really complicated time of year. For 2017 I had intended to go anyway, as two of my friends castigated me for not attending the year before, but it was great to be invited on a panel.
What follows is a report of my trip. It will likely end up a bit fanboy, a bit analytical, and a bit reflective on how far the world has come since I originally got involved in sports stats back in 2005. What it should not come across as is a humblebrag, as I know exactly how fortunate I have been to get to where I am, and I understand exactly how tiny my own contribution is to the greater sports + stats universe. Aside from eSports, soccer is the sport that makes up the tiniest proportion of the conference agenda, and I was very lucky to be along for the ride.
This is me at 7 in the morning on my way to Heathrow. It’s a follow-up from a joke I made that we should be able to dress like Bill Belichick as an homage to his greatness, since the conference is held in Boston. Morey is a) one of the pioneers in basketball analytics, b) one of the two co-founders of the conference along with Jessica Gelman, and c) a charismatic ball buster who happens to also be the long-time GM of the Houston Rockets, a team whose current style clearly illustrates the dramatic shift in how analytics has changed how teams play basketball.
Anyway… the reason why I’m showing this picture is this. While working on an interesting tracking data in football/soccer problem that came from an email from my panel moderator Andrew Wiebe, I left my suitcase on the train. And I didn’t realize until the doors were locked on my next train to the airport. Which meant the only clothes I had for the trip at this point were ones that would have left me dressed like Bill Belichick. Awkward.
Fast forward a bit and I am half awake and about to board the train to my terminal at Heathrow and I see this person, very confused about which side of the train she should use to go toward immigration.
There were many celebrity sightings at Sloan but none of them were professional models.
Yay, Boston! Oh shit, I have no clothes. I may have to go to my panel dressed as mighty Bill.
So the first thing I go do is buy a weekend’s worth of clothes, and then I grab some food before heading to the speakers’ networking event.
I am not a great networker, especially when it comes to a room of people I have never met before. Guy who is good with numbers and data is slightly uncomfortable in a room full of strangers? Complete shock, I know… So I mostly stood around and people watched, which is also a fun activity. Shane Battier and Luis Scola were in attendance, which was amazing because they actually tower over everyone they might talk to.
I briefly said hi to Daryl Morey, but since I was not dressed as Belichick, I assume he had no idea who I was. I did know Hendrik Almstadt though, since we’d talked before and he was on my panel. He has fascinating stories about his time both at Arsenal and Aston Villa. We mourned a bit of Arsenal’s season and considered what would be interesting to discuss tomorrow on the stage. I went to grab another water, as I am not drinking at this point because I am desperately trying to stay awake, and when I came back he was talking to someone else.
“Ted, this is my friend Sam. Sam, Ted.”
“Sam…?” I instinctively reach down to flip his name tag over since it was facing the other way. “… Oh, Hinkie! Uh, yeah, wow. I didn’t know what you look like in person, somehow, but I’ve been following all your work for basically ever. Nice to meet you.”
I am nothing but awkward social interactions.
I also talked a bit to Sam Ventura, who is a professor at CMU, a Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and who also does some cool stuff with modelling NFL play-by-play and R. Sam teaches data visualization and is not exactly a fan of radar charts. He gave me some stick about that – mostly fair, though I did actually study data vis pretty deeply before developing these and I know they have weaknesses – and we talk a bit about how he remains so impossibly productive. Hockey Sam is good people.
Since I don’t know anyone else and am now terrified of alienating everyone I look up to in the sports world, I bounce off to the Soccermetrics meetup Howard Hamilton organizes every year. It’s a great place to meet and/or catch up with dorks from the soccer/football stats world. This year’s crowd is loaded with luminaries that you may or may not have heard of, but who I keep fairly close track of because they are generally really fucking smart. Guys like Chris Anderson, David Sally, Blake Wooster, Devin Pleuler, William Spearman, two guys from Second Spectrum, Ian Lynam, Mitch Lasky, Daniel Stenz, Padraig Smith, and Sloan rock star Luke Bornn (plus many others I am assuredly accidentally omitting).
Luke might be a guy you haven’t heard of, but every year he and his graduate students churn out amazing papers here at Sloan, including what remains to me one of the coolest pieces of sports research I have ever seen, and one of the main paradigms for how I view both basketball and football. As if being an actual genius weren’t enough, he’s also incredibly nice, funny, and good looking. In other words, he is utterly hateable. He is also Canadian, which makes that impossible. Some people…
The Conference – Friday
Expected Attendance: 3500 people.
For a Sports. Analytics. Conference.
In America, the nerds have won.
Coming to Sloan as an American is likely a very different experience to coming here if you are European. As an American, there are sports and media celebrities absolutely everywhere, to the point that it’s almost overwhelming. This was amplified for me because I was lucky enough have a pass to the Speaker’s room. This is a quiet place away from the crowds in the halls and presentation rooms where speakers can have some quiet time to chill out, talk to friends away from public ears, or review their notes in a panic.
It’s also almost constantly filled with celebrities. At one point there was a table of guys shooting the shit about NBA that included Morey, Zach Lowe, Celtics AGM Mike Zarren, Tom Haberstroh, and former MIT Blackjack Team and current Twitter head of analytics Jeff Ma. (Ma is the basis for the main character in the book Bringing Down the House and the movie 21.) So much fire power.
I saw a few panels on Friday and managed to catch three really great talks, including Seth Partnow’s Truth and Myths of the 3-Point Revolution in Basketball, an awesome Sleep Science talk, and Ian Lynam’s highly entertaining talk about ridiculous incentives in English Premier League contracts. I missed the Silver Asks Silver panel because it was on at the same time as mine and Moneymind: Overcoming Cognitive Bias, which I was told was awesome. Thankfully both of these will have video posted at some point in the future.
The Soccer Panel: Hendrik Almstadt, Daniel Stenz, Padraig Smith, Ted Knutson, Andrew Wiebe (Mod)
Hendrik and Padraig either currently are or used to be Sporting Directors. Daniel has worked for Koln, Union Berlin, Vancouver, and the Hungarian National Team. Wiebe works hard in media for MLS, and has moderated this panel before.
Feedback from the panel was really strong. One of the dangers of putting people currently employed on this panel is that they don’t say anything. So they might know a lot of cool stuff, but are terrified to answer questions with any insight. That didn’t happen here. I was really impressed with the level of detail both Smith and Stenz discussed recent or ongoing projects, including how Colorado uses data in recruitment. Hendrik and I were happy to talk about these things (Hendrik currently works for the PGA), so maybe that gave Padraig some freedom to express himself, but that often never happens on other panels.
Some key points:
- The marriage of tracking data and event data will be a key to unlocking the future. We need both data sets and we need to be able to analyse them as part of the complete picture of what is happening in a game. I also feel very strongly that we need it not only for games, but for training data as well. The reason for this is that football games only produce a moderate sample of data for us to analyse, but training happens constantly. You’ll have to be careful about what training data you include as having valid incentives, but it will dramatically increase the sample size and our ability to evaluate player skill sets as a result.
- Right now data analysts work for clubs but often are wedded to the coaching staff. Their direct line of report is to the manager, which means if the data is starting to say uncomfortable things about performance, or the coach disagrees with it, it often gets muted or is considered wrong. That’s definitely not how it should work. That’s especially true because analysts tend to build a large store of institutional knowledge that is valuable to keep inside of a club, and not be chucked out every time the club changes a manager or a head coach.
- A combination of football people asking questions and quants then finding the answers, then sending them back to football people for a sense check, is another key to unlocking useful things in the sport. One of the problems we see again and again when researchers without game expertise get involved is really brain dead studies like the one Garry Gelade discussed at the OptaPro Forum, or mistakes made in interesting studies that ruin their credibility. Tyler Dellow flagged one from this past weekend in a hockey research paper where it had inverted which side certain players play on – an extremely easy mistake to make in programming. Unfortunately this type of mistake means the study would be blown apart the moment you brought it to a coaching staff, regardless of how good it was.
- There is still plenty of low-hanging fruit out there for football clubs to take advantage of, they just need to open their minds and talk to the right people. It’s very straightforward to create the edge in recruitment, and the money it saves by avoiding mistakes is massive. If I can figure out the set piece edges, so can plenty of other people. I’m not that smart, and it’s not that difficult, which is why I have historically avoided the topic. The same is true in so many other areas. Football is too big and too complicated a sport for one person to be an expert in all the different facets of the game. Because of this, clubs need to constantly seek out new information and perspectives.
I thought Wiebe did an excellent job moderating, and feedback from the audience and Twitter was that people were genuinely excited by what we said. I guess that’s a success.
Friday evening I hung out with more soccer people including seeing some of the guys at US Soccer again. Federation challenges are really interesting, and there’s only a moderate amount of overlap with what we do at the club level, so it’s always intriguing to discuss what their future might look like.
When I go to the U.S. these days, my body never adjusts. Too many years of children and 6AM wake ups mean I never sleep past 8:30 here in England, which means I rarely sleep past 4AM when I visit America. Thus I had breakfast early and was chilling in the speakers’ room waiting for the gambling panel to start.
While most of you probably know me from my work on football analytics, my “real” expertise is gambling. I have spent the vast majority of my time since 2005 in and around the world of sports betting, including 8 years at PinnacleSports.com, and two years inside of Matthew Benham’s Smartodds operation. (We worked on football and for the football teams, but we sat in the middle of a giant gambling operation.)
I started at Pinnacle in early 2007, just after they left the U.S. market. While I was there, we either created or completely rebuilt all of their non-U.S. sports departments, and I fought for a year to create the Live Sports department, which means I was overseeing development and application on the initial models for Live MLB, NBA, Soccer and Tennis. I am likely one of the only people in the world to work for a long time inside one of the giant discount books as well as in and around one of the world’s biggest betting syndicates. In gambling, unlike in football stats, I’m a strange sort of unicorn.
The funny thing is, no one knows this. Pinnacle people rarely travel, and we never have a forum to talk about our work. Thus when you sit down next to even seasoned gamblers like Ma and introduce yourself, you can expect a deluge of really interesting questions.
Example: How much volume and profit did Pinnacle have the year before they left the U.S. Market?
Example2: Why did the stupid owners get arrested?
I also talked a bit to ESPN vet Chad Millman and Joe Brennan Jr, who is apparently a fan of the StatsBomb podcast.
My takeaways from the gambling panel
- Sports betting is a game of skill. This is especially true when the vig is low. (My words, not theirs.)
- The U.S. still has no idea when/if/how they will legalize sports betting. This remains baffling to me since the NFL spreads are talked about in every major news organization in the country, but you still can’t bet on them outside of Vegas.
- Because of the above, the probability that they legislate in a way that makes it possible for a discount (translation: low price like a Pinnacle, IBCBet, SBOBet) sportsbook to exist is fairly low. Margins in Vegas are 5% on average (-110/-110 in American odds). Margins at discount books are often 1.5 to 2.5% and they take all action, which means they tend to earn considerably less than that per dollar wagered. Because of this, if you tax them in the way of sin taxes and take a percentage of gross revenue, you make it impossible for them to exist in your jurisdiction without a dramatic price hike.
Europe is a mess of disjointed gambling laws that typically screw customers in favour of tax receipts, which in turn drives them toward better priced options which are quasi-legal where the government then does not get tax receipts. Because Vegas exists already, there’s a chance the U.S. may end up with something sensible that allows competition, innovation, and is customer friendly, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
- Because the U.S. doesn’t have legal sports betting, the sports data feeds are pretty poor. The reason behind this is that there is no value equation available to them to make it real-time. Gambling would fix that because the amount of money books can lose from past posts to people with better/faster TV feeds is stupidly large.
- Internet sports betting is a tech industry. There is no other tech industry where the U.S. has simply chosen to be absent.
- In-running betting typically increases fan engagement. In Asia, in-running volume can often be 3-5 times what the volume is on pre-game (they didn’t say that but I know this from experience). Worried about falling viewership numbers on TV for various leagues in the U.S.? That could potentially be halted or reversed with legalized gambling.
- The other thing that legalized gambling would do is drive massive amounts of advertising dollars straight to the networks and sports teams/leagues themselves. We saw it briefly with Draft Kings/Fan Duel, but that would be a drop in the bucket compared to what would happen with an open U.S. market for sportsbooks.
- No one realises how massive eSports gambling is just now in the rest of the world, or could be in the U.S. if it goes legal. The audience for these events is already huge, and it crosses over to people traditional sports often don’t, which is a new market segment for sportsbooks.
Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll get to go back to Sloan next year and be on the gambling panel and tell stories about painful, sometimes expensive lessons in modernizing on of the world’s biggest sportsbooks for the digital age.
So yeah… I started the day shooting the shit with Jeff Ma, which was very cool.
I also had the briefest chat with Boston and U.S. sports media legend Jackie MacMullan. Jackie’s one of the few female voices we saw on sports TV in the early days, and was on ESPN and at the Boston Globe even when I was a kid. Her work has always been superlative. Now that I have some perspective, I appreciate her even more than I did when I was younger, since I suspect she had to go through a lot of miserable bullshit along the way simply because of her gender. It’s hard to convey what these people mean to you in a five-minute conversation, but I feel lucky to have talked to her at all.
The same is true for Brian Kenny, one of the journalists who pushed baseball stats constantly throughout his career. He’s a voice I listened to for so many hours watching Baseball Tonight on those long, hot summer nights, and I got a high five from him in the green room. Shortly after that, Mark Cuban walked through the halls literally hushing conversations as everyone whispered, “OMG is that Mark Cuban!?”
I was also able to converse with contemporaries like Bill Barnwell, Bill Connelly, and Tyler Dellow (mc79hockey), who I was told is the only panelist on the weekend who definitely had a higher usage rate than I did.
Sloan is a smorgasboard for meeting cool, smart people from the students through the titans.
When I was in high school, I was not one of the cool kids. I was a good athlete, but also sang, acted, competed on academic teams, liked comic books, science fiction, and had an odd, goofball sense of humour. It was fine, but there were very few people who just “got” me. I went to a high school out in the country, and at some point I wondered if this was what the rest of life was going to be like.
Then I visited the Naval Academy for a week as part of a science camp/recruitment visit. There I met so many other bright, funny, allegedly weird people that I stopped worrying that I’d never fit in. I now had proof that I’d likely find a comfortable social group when I went to college, and I did.
As odd as it sounds, Sloan was a lot like that for me. It’s filled with like-minded people who love the application of stats, data, and sports. It’s also filled with incredibly smart, eloquent people talking about their research in these areas. Many of these people tell war stories about the difficulties they faced bringing their research to their game. They (generally) overcame.
In American sports, baseball is largely viewed as being mature from a stats and data perspective. The big topics have largely been solved, and the edges are mostly in the margins and application now. Basketball is more complicated from an analysis perspective, but they are tackling fascinating tracking data problems and hoovering up some of the brightest minds from Harvard and MIT every year. American Football and Hockey are slower on the uptake and more challenging from a cultural perspective, but they are moving now as well.
Football/soccer is very much in the difficulty phase. It’s hard to get in the door. It’s hard to get past the skepticism to even have a conversation. Football lifers look for any possible reason to pick things apart because they don’t want to have to deal with this different perspective on the game, because they don’t understand it and they don’t want to understand it.
Not everyone is like this, obviously, and the times, they are a’ changin’. But change has been surprisingly slow in the last five years when the value of the work is almost slap-in-the-face obvious.
That’s why this trip to Sloan for me was absolutely amazing. Talking, arguing, sharing stories with bright people in other sports once again showed me that things will be okay.
Talking to Seth Partnow and @causalkathy about data versus theory paradigms was great. Finally getting to meet Dellow and hear stories from inside hockey and bleeding on stage during his panel was also great. Hearing from Devin Pleuler about some new initiatives Toronto FC have in the off-season, and then having Devin walk into the bar with his Sloan Hack-a-thon trophy for NBA tracking data was genuinely special.
I had one of the best weekends of my life in Boston, and I fell in love with sports analytics all over again. Thanks Daryl Morey, Jessica Gelman, and all the students at Sloan for creating and producing a fabulous conference that I hope to attend over and over again.
I was walking to dinner with my friend Worth Wollpert and we saw Mike Zarren from the Celtics getting ready to the leave for the day. Zarren is one of the most generous guys in the analytics sphere when it comes to lending his time and expertise to people – even weirdos from completely different sports – and no one I have ever met has had a bad word to say about him. In fact, a lot of people you never expect are connected to Zarren because he helped them.
In short, Mike Zarren changes lives.
So, we stopped and I went out of my way to mention that to him, even if it made him feel just a bit awkward at the time. Sometimes you have to make a point to tell people they are a good egg, and to keep up the good work.
Special thanks to Paul Carr for helping me get on the panel in the first place and also for guiding me through all the stuff he does at ESPN. It was great to meet you and all your hair.