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Day 1 of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference


I'm writing right now from the Westin, next door to the convention center where they're holding the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It's quite large with easily several hundred attendees and quite a number of well-known sports executives, commentators, and athletes including: Daryl Morey (GM of the Houston Rockets), Mark Cuban (Owner of the Dallas Mavericks), Jeff Van Gundy (former coach of the Knicks and ESPN commentator), Malcolm Gladwell (author), and Bill Simmons (sportswriter extraordinaire.)
Most of my friends expressed support but seeming mock incredulity that I would take the time / make the effort to go to this conference. The way I figure it is that I love sports and... why not? 
The first panel was around the modern athlete and the 10,000 hour concept popularized by Gladwell in "Blink". Probably the most fascinating thing was that Mark Verstegen of Athlete's Performance (I think they basically prepare athletes for the NFL combine, etc.) was saying that he thought emotional intelligence has become a better predictor than athletic performance of future success as an athlete. Amazing.
The second panel I went to was about athlete branding in the new age. I was a little divided about this panel because they had a killer (and timely) one on labor relations -- but decided to hit this nonetheless. It was awesome. Some of the more interesting tidbits:
  • the best tweeters? Dwight Howard, Landon Donovan, and Serena Williams. (i.e. these are the athletes who really get social media and know how to build a following)
  • Dwight Howard has a huge presence in China because he puts in face time (very important for the Chinese) and he even goes to what is termed "Tier II and III" cities. Lawrence Norman of Adidas pointed out that these cities may be Tier II and III in China, but they have the population of New York.
  • Greg Via of Gillette said that when he was working at Gatorade, they had only 1 endorser -- Michael Jordan -- and they had a "Jordan Book" which he still mentally uses. It basically covers in excruciating detail everything -- even things that one might normally overlook like where the athlete parks or who greets the athlete when they arrive. Details, details. So critical.
  • Lawrence Norman also told a great story of Derrick Rose. They told him up front that if he signed with Adidas, he wouldn't get a shoe for 2 years. He said that his star wouldn't be big enough to support a launch, and besides, it would give him plenty of time to have input in the design. This is obviously not what other shoe companies told him because he was going to be the #1 overall pick. Derrick understood the rationale and still went with Adidas and waited. You're ready when you're ready -- it's not personal, it's just business.
At lunch, I heard from Apollo Ohno and if one thing stood out, it was how obsessive and disciplined he was about every aspect of his training. He also told a great story about Lance Armstrong in the tour. He was neck and neck with another rider and both were basically gassed (and they knew this because they had sensors measuring whatever it is they measure to figure this out.) They were both about to be broken and there was yet another hill. Because he was with a rival, Lance made the decision to attack. Now, Apollo was saying that Lance was attacking not because he had more energy, but because that's how he was going to break his opponent. Lance only attacked for 62 seconds before slowing down. However, at some point during the attack -- the signal was sent to his opponent, "I'm superhuman. You can't stop me." and his opponent broke. He slowed down by 35%.
By the way, this conference was full of students in suits. It was a sea of suits. I guess everyone wants a job in sports and (probably rightly) figures this is the best place to make connections and the like. A reasonably high contingent of women too. Not enormous, maybe 15% -- but they're here.