MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference continues to make strides in data acceptance

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jessica Gelman sharpened her basketball skills in pickup games at YMCAs growing up in suburban Chicago, rocking her black sneakers just like Michael Jordan and the rest of the Bulls. Sure, the future co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference wanted to play like Jordan — and Gelman developed into the kind of Ivy League standout that saw her burst into a 1,000-point scorer and co-captain at Harvard — but her appreciation of his greatness stretched beyond the court.

Like Jordan, Gelman wanted to separate herself from the field.

“So I did a behind-the back dribble,” she said, laughing, “which was not a thing that girls did in the ’80s and ’90s.”

She tried to break barriers ever since, Gelman’s love of numbers and sports leading her to not only rub shoulders with some of the more notable thinkers, entrepreneurs, innovators and front office deal makers in the industry, but rise to become a prominent executive herself in the analytics movement. She teamed with Philadelphia 76ers President Daryl Morey to not only found Sloan, but guide it into the preeminent forum for number-crunchers — yes, the term “stat nerds” gets tossed around — all while fostering diversity and inclusion at all levels of sports, entertainment and beyond.

In some fashion, Sloan is Gelman’s professional behind-the-back dribble.

“Once I got into the business world, it was analytics,” she said. “It’s not necessarily what people were into. But there was a different way of engaging and being differentiated.”

The Sloan conference runs Friday and Saturday in Boston, having exploded from a one-day, on-campus affair in 2007 that attracted barely 200 people to the Super Bowl of Stats that will host a sold-out crowd of 2,500 people (plus a wait list) at a downtown convention center.

“The rise of the conference in many ways has risen with the increasing adoption of analytics,” Gelman said. “While people are investing in analytics and want to be doing it, there’s so much more to go. We’re still in the very early days.”

Actor Rob McElhenney, Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe are among the scores of celebrity heavyweights speaking on the main panel forums that will be livestreamed, in large part to drive education and offer a free alternative to a ticket price that tops $1,100.

Michael Rubin, the CEO of Fanatics, is a speaker this weekend on multiple Sloan panels, including one on sports disruptors — much like he believed has been Gelman’s role as she drives the discussion around sports and analytics

“I’ve just always been beyond impressed with her in both her strategic thinking and her ability to make an impact in so many parts of the business,” Rubin said. “It’s hard to start these things. I go there out of a respect for her because she puts such a special group of people together.”

MIT Sloan students help plan and run the conference — Rubin was among the business leaders who used Sloan as a networking and recruiting event.

“We didn’t conceive it would become this,” Gelman said.

A sampling of topics at Sloan include The Future of AI in Sports, David vs. Goliath: The Underdog Mindset, Investing in the Future of Women’s Sports Media and the Evolution of Basketball Analytics: 20 Years of Nerds, Data, & Efficiency.

“AI is obviously huge,” Gelman said. “I think most organizations at this point in time do not have the foundational data sets to truly use it in the right way. I don’t think organizations are using it for anything mission critical at this point in time because of needing better safeguards and guardrails.”

Gelman and Morey — who met when they taught a course at MIT Sloan on sports analytics — grew Sloan it into such a behemoth in the sports world that it hosted former President Barack Obama as the keynote speaker in 2018, all while trying to stay true to its roots as a leader in the role of sports analytics.

“There’s been an acceptance of analytics,” Gelman said, “but there’s still fear of it. I think people who want to understand it, they’re coming to the place where many analytics folks have kind of built their careers.”

Yes, analytics, a term that still draws derision from critics that haven’t fully grasped the statistical deep dive that has propelled numerous teams to championships — and changing sports from the field to the front office in ways not necessarily seen on the “Moneyball” big screen, such as through ticket purchases and fan engagement.

“Being mad about analytics is like being mad about gravity,” Morey said. “It’s the thing that pushes you toward winning, essentially. If the thing that pushes you toward winning, because of the rules, makes it more boring, that’s really nobody’s fault.”

Gelman, a minority partner in the Utah Royals of the National Women’s Soccer League, has played hardball with numbers since she earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and — after an overseas basketball career — worked for the Kraft family and the New England Patriots. She is the CEO of KAGR (Kraft Analytics Group) that uses data management and analytic approaches to engage customers and boost business operations for such companies as Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment and the NCAA.

“I think that data analytics, from my view of the world, is mostly powerful and provides more information than not,” Gelman said. “I would say, selfishly, as a woman in the industry has really enabled me to have a different voice, a different perspective that’s maybe not just, this is what I think because I’ve been doing this a very long time.”

Her rise as a power broker in strategic consulting and data management has been recognized across the sports landscape.

“If she didn’t work for the Krafts, I’d have her work for Fanatics,” Rubin said. “She’s super smart, super strategic, asks all the right questions and she has great relationship skills.”

Gelman said understanding analytics helps increase access for the often underrepresented populations in the industry. She said about 50% of the speakers last year at Sloan were women or minorities, a raised priority for the conference after it took some knocks in the past for its exorbitant ticket prices and male-dominated list of guests.

“I think it’s a passion for everyone who works on the conference,” Morey said. “It’s traditionally been very male. Actually, our minority is more gender than racial. Providing more opportunities for young women to break into sports analytics has been a big focus. We also look at racial diversity, as well, as a big focus. It used to be very, very, very — many very’s — percent men. Now, we’ve made a lot of progress there.”

Gelman, who lives with her wife and their two sons in the Boston area, hopes all kinds of young professionals that pass through Sloan this weekend can one day help level the playing field in all platforms of sports — from the business side to the front office to educational services to customer service.

Just like her playground dribble that took her to the pros, Gelman aims to use Sloan to shake up the sports industry.

“How do you get advantages? If everyone is doing something one way,” she said, “maybe you’ve got to go the opposite way.”

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