Thursday, September 24, 2015

This Week's Wall Street Journal Interview with Billy Beane and Bill James, and the 2003 Scottsdale, Arizona Informal Sports-Analytics Conference

In March 2003, I attended a small, informal conference in Scottsdale, Arizona (strategically selected to coincide with spring training) with sabermetrically inclined academicians and sports journalists/analysts. The conference was mentioned three days ago in a Wall Street Journal interview with Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane and Boston Red Sox adviser Bill James (link). My friend Mike Gustafson, remembering that I had attended the conference, brought the WSJ article to my attention (Thanks Mike!).

Reference to the Arizona meeting came up almost by accident in the interview, in response to a question about a different topic. Here's the relevant part of the article:

WSJ: Is there another sport that stands out to either of you as being most ripe for the kind of revolution baseball has undergone with analytics? 

 James: Football, from a popular perception angle, has lots of openings for analysts to rush in. There’s been this ongoing debate in football. Billy and I met in Arizona. When was that? 

 Beane: 2000, 2001 maybe. It was a little half-conference that Bill had and I joined him for. It was before the book. 

James: The guy who put it together was a distinguished economist from the University of Chicago. One thing we talked about then, I remember, there was a guy from AT&T who studies football, and he was arguing then that it’s foolish for football coaches to punt in many situations in which they actually do punt...

Beane was a couple of years off, and the football analyst mentioned by James is David Romer of UC Berkeley (not AT&T, unless he did research for the telecommunications giant at some other point in his career). Other than that, however, Beane and James were pretty accurate about the conference. Here's a link to Romer's paper, by the way.

My connection is that, along with Tom Gilovich, I was representing hot-hand research. Most of the participants in the meeting are shown in the following photo (with a legend to identify participants at the very bottom of this posting). You may click on the graphics to enlarge them.

The "distinguished economist" from Chicago is Richard Thaler (first row, white shirt). Among his other accomplishments, Thaler co-authored the book Nudge in 2008. Thaler co-organized the conference with Jim Sherman of Indiana University (standing next to Thaler). Beane is not shown in the photo, as he was busy overseeing the A's from their nearby spring-training complex and took time from his day to come by the conference to speak at one session.

One broad theme addressed at the conference was the future of systematic empirical research in guiding sports teams' decision-making. Twelve years post-conference, I think it's safe to say that the use of such research has expanded dramatically beyond the A's, Red Sox, and any other teams that were looking at sabermetrics in 2003.

In 2015, ESPN The Magazine, which has been issuing an annual Sports Analytics Issue for at least the past few years, ranked all MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL franchises on their commitment to sabermetrics, using a five-level scale (All-In, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics, and Non-Believers). With the exception of the NFL (where no teams were listed as All-In), the combined total for All-In and Believers exceeded that for Skeptics and Non-Believers in all sports. 

Another indicator is the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the history of which is documented here. The inaugural meeting in 2007 was held on the MIT campus and attracted approximately 175 people. By 2015, attendance had jumped to 3,200, with the festivities now being held in a large convention center. Three league commissioners (NBA, MLB, and Major League Soccer) spoke at the 2015 conference.

Here's the legend identifying participants in the 2003 Scottsdale conference.

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