On February 28, 2014, a massive number of industry leaders in the field of sports analytics flocked to Boston to partake in the 8th Annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The event has seen exponential growth since its inaugural conference in 2007, and it has become one of the premier non-athletic events in the sports industry. In the days following the conference, the web was filled with numerous recaps of the panels, research papers, interviews and even the trade show that lined the conference agenda sheets. [Christopher Long provided a nice link with various different recaps.]
These are by no means the only accounts available, as you can find many breakdowns, summaries, and rundowns of the various panels and events on virtually any news site. Furthermore, once Sloan is finished editing their content, almost anything you want to see from the conference can be sorted and viewed on the official conference website [as of this writing, only content up to the 2013 conference was available].
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending this event for the first time. There have already been a number of recaps on the actual content of the panels and speakers at the conference, and therefore, readers probably won’t benefit or learn anything new from my own account. However, there were a number of things I learned about how to attend this event that may be beneficial. With that, I’d like to walk you through my own experience and fill you in on the lessons I learned.
Lessons 1 and 2: Arrive Early and Don’t Bring a Coat
SSAC14 was held in the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston. The location is easily accessible by bus or subway [known as the “T”] and is a short distance from various hotels if you are coming in from out of town. I learned two lessons during Breakfast and Registration: (1) arrive early, and/or (2) avoid bringing a jacket [as in big winter coat].
The registration process is not all that difficult. I arrived at 8am with Red Bull in hand and immediately set out for the registration area. Located in a room off of the main entrance, the process took all of five minutes, and I walked out with my credentials and a nice goodie bag that doubles as a lunch container [items inside included a conference mug, special analytics edition of Grantland, conference information nooklet, ESPN The Mag Analytics Issue, and a list of conference attendees/organizers].
However, the process of checking coats took a while [about 20 minutes] and only picked up once more workers could be allocated when the welcoming remarks began. Hopefully this is something that is addressed in the future [it’s my only real negative about the whole conference, and it’s nitpicking at best], but it may be beneficial to arrive early anyways as I saw a number of panelists and speakers roaming around while I was standing in line. While others are just getting set up, you could be striking up a quick conversation with one of the leaders of the sports analytics industry and possibly building yourself a foundation for future encounters.
Lesson 3: Plan Your Day
The conference agenda is set up where you could attend anywhere between two and seven events [if you include the various trade shows and resume sessions] during any one time period. It is important that you do your research beforehand to determine which speakers are on various panels and determine where you want to spend that hour-long block of time. What topics interest you the most? Who would you like to meet? Planning out your day allows you to streamline your conference experience, and it gives you the opportunity to capture prime positioning at the panels of your choice.
Lesson 4: Prime Positioning at Panels
The minute each panel is over, the stages are swarmed with crowd members hoping to make an impression on the speakers. This phenomenon is not unique to this conference, but the volume and competitive nature of this conference’s attendees made this post-panel rush quite an experience to behold. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how open and patient these panelists were. Many were more than willing to continue speaking with attendees long after their panel is over, even if they had to move the discussions out into one of Hynes Convention Center’s massive hallways. If one of your goals is to speak to one of these panelists, this is one of the better moments to do it. Therefore, many first timers would benefit by securing seats close to the walk -points of the various stages. This may seem obvious, but I cannot tell you how many times I saw people half walking/half running from the back of the rooms up to the front to try and speak with someone.
Lesson 5: Hallway Chatter
Many attendees that I had a chance to speak with were locked in on being one of the people to successfully speak with someone during the post-panel swarms I described in Lesson 4. However, I found that the hallways, both during and in-between scheduled events, offer vastly superior opportunities to speak with industry leaders. Many panelists seem to use this event as an opportunity to reach out to their peers, and they can be found in the hallways carrying on conversations for hours at a time. For example, I walked out of a panel to partake in one of the Career Conversation opportunities in the afternoon of Day 1. During my walk to the assigned room, I noticed Nate Silver and Henry Abbott carrying on a conversation. I came back to the area about an hour later and noticed that neither of them had moved. This was not a unique encounter, as I also spotted Dean Oliver and Boston Celtics Assistant GM Mike Zarren during my various hallway migrations. I even had a chance to talk with Sport Illustrated Legal Analyst and University of New Hampshire Law Professor Michael McCann during one of the in-between event breaks.
Don’t sleep on the opportunities available outside the panels, because you never know who you might run into.
Lesson 6: Resume Reviews and Career Conversations
I found these features to be two of the most underutilized and least discussed aspects of the conference. Prior to the conference, attendees were able to submit their names into a lottery that would allow you to speak with various industry professionals for five minutes at a time. The conference called this its “Career Conversations” event, and your time slots occurred at random between 2:20 and 4:40 on the events first day. While you might not be able to build a lasting relationship in just five minutes, it does provide attendees with the opportunity to sit in front of industry professionals and exchange contact information and/or business cards. You may not be able to build a relationship in five minutes, but you can lay the groundwork for contacting these professionals in the future – which could lead to that one big break you need.
I did not participate in the drop in the Resume Review sessions that were offered this year [mistake - I wish I had]. However, I heard from other attendees that the process was very similar to the Career Conversations sessions I discussed above. Again, you may not be able to build a whole relationship in this time period, but you will get some honest feedback on your resume and can lay the groundwork for future networking opportunities. All in all, you may miss some of the panels you wanted to attend in order to participate in these events, but they offer attendees the guaranteed chance to speak with someone one on one – possibly leading to bigger and better opportunities in the future.
Lesson 7: Day 1 is Long
This is just a quick point. The Conference opens its doors for breakfast and registration at 7:30am on Day 1, and the last session (networking) is not over until 7:30pm. Based solely on the conference agenda, you are looking at a 12 hour day with lunch being served between 11:20 and 11:40. The conference provides snacks in the hallways throughout the day, but plan accordingly so you do not have to miss any of your panels or other events. Bring a granola bar or two from home, or be sure to pick a few up during breakfast and stash them for later. [For those wondering, the conference goodie bag also came equipped with a water bottle.]
Day 2 is much shorter (8am – 5:15pm) but be prepared there as well.
Side Note: One of the snacks provided were massive chocolate chip cookies. I’m talking “Rondo hand size” massive, and they were delicious.
These were just a few (seven, to be exact) of the lessons I learned during my first trip to the Sloan Sports Conference. I plan on attending again next year and would advise any future first timers to sign up for the notification emails when the opportunity becomes available. As a member of the email list, you are provided with an opportunity to purchase a ticket before they hit the open market. This is extremely important given that the conference has a tendency to sell out quickly. Also, if you are currently a student (undergrad or graduate school), take advantage of the student-discounted tickets while you still can.
All in all, this event completely exceeded my expectations, and they were high to begin with. I firmly believe that any sports fan would benefit from attending this event at least once and that you will be blown away by its quality. My final lesson is one that was taught to me by a law professor while I was still in undergrad, but I have found it to be extremely helpful when it comes to attending these types of events: set goals for the event.
If you want to talk to persons X, Y and Z, then structure your experience to give yourself the best opportunity to do so. If you want to learn all about the research papers, then stay in the Research Paper rooms all day. Sloan can be whatever you want it to be, but it might be too big for you to do everything. However, no matter what your goals are, it is pretty much impossible not to have a blast at Sloan. I hope you found at least some of this advice useful and hopefully I will run into a couple of you next year.
Jeff Meehan is a 2nd year JD/MBA candidate at Suffolk University and recently interned in the Boston Red Sox legal department.