During his time as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Forrest Gregg one summer reported to training camp newly married. During a press conference, he was engaged in small talk with reporters when he was asked how he enjoyed his honeymoon. Ever the head coach, Gregg replied, “I won’t know until I review the film.”
After having given a thirty minute presentation at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past weekend, I know just how he feels.
During the 2012 conference, at which Bill James was presented with a lifetime achievement award, he mused that the Sloan conference was the culmination of his life’s work. If you’re a sports fan with a strong interest in statistics and data interpretation, it’s easy to understand his sentiment. In the days before I left for the conference, I excitedly explained to my wife in San Francisco how much fun the conference was going to be and how honored I was to be able contribute to the weekend’s content. She took a look at the two-day agenda and after seeing topics like “A System for Measuring the Neural Correlates of Baseball Pitch Recognition” and “Your Personal Fantasy Sports Reporter” remarked, “This is like nerd high school.”
“Exactly,” I exclaimed, perhaps, in retrospect, missing a thinly veiled insult as I continued on without an ounce of enthusiasm drained, “Bill Simmons once referred to the conference as Dork-a-Palooza and it stuck.” She took one last look at the agenda and said, “Well if there has ever been a business trip where your wife doesn’t have any worry about you having an affair . . . .”
Thin veil lifted, that one I got.
After arriving in Boston on Thursday night, I registered for the event in a line with dozens of other attendees. I don’t want to say I felt old, but let’s just say I would have liked to have had the rights to a Red Bull concession stand for the weekend. I probably should have taken note of this demographic fact and reviewed the content of my speech one more time, but unfortunately that didn’t cross my mind. I awoke Friday feeling like my daughters on Christmas morning.
Fortunately, I had an early time slot the first morning of the conference, and after watching the keynote panel moderated by Michael Lewis and featuring, among others, Mark Cuban and Nate Silver, I headed to my conference room. The first thing I noticed that was the size of the room – there were seats for over 300 people! I may have been speaking about the intersection of audience-friendly topics Las Vegas and sports analytics but I still didn’t expect that type of crowd. Yet, there were actually people standing in the back when I looked over the room before I spoke. Again, as I surveyed the room, it struck me was how young the attendees were. It makes sense. The Sloan conference is organized and run entirely by MIT’s MBA students and, through discounted tickets, it ensures students from across the country will have access to the event. It’s also immensely helpful for presenters because these students bring palpable amounts of energy and enthusiasm to the event. Still, for someone in his forties making a presentation, the relative youth of the attendees can present a minor hurdle in connecting with the audience.
For instance, here is a list of pop culture references I made during my half-hour presentation, Sports Analytics as an Alternative Investment, along with the crowd response from the audience.
Pop Culture Reference Reaction
1982 Movie Night Shift Dead silence, except for the crickets I
could hear in my head.
1998 Movie Rounders Murmur
PG-13 joke about the Kardashians Brought down the house.
I have two takeaways from the experience. If I’m ever again going to step into a college campus-like setting, I need to brush up on the lingo and I think I’m beginning to understand why my oldest daughter, even at the tender age of 8, is embarrassed by me.
Standing on a brightly-lit stage, essentially reading from a teleprompter as I did, it’s virtually impossible to gauge the interest of the audience. I had no idea if I had engaged them (and truthfully, I really will need to see the videotape to judge the presentation.) So I was stunned when I left the stage and a couple dozen people crowded around and then lined up to speak with me. A friend of mine who observed the scene said to me, “Dude, you got podium humped.” I looked at him bewildered, “That’s a thing?” “At conferences?” this veteran of business travel rhetorically asked before answering, “Oh yeah it is.”
(To my ultra-confident wife, I ask, “Hear that? Now who needs to worry?”)
Truth is, the questions I fielded after the presentation were what makes the Sloan Conference so great and it’s why so many people attend every year and why attendance soars annually (2013 attendees: 2,700.) There are hundreds and hundreds of intelligent, motivated, and enthusiastic students there and when you interact with these like-minded people you can’t help but understand the sentiment behind Bill James’ observation last year. For everyone there, it really is like the titter-inducing Eminem quote I made during my speech: “There are a million of us just like me, who walk, talk, and act like me.”
Above all else, the Sloan conference is a celebration of critical reasoning, and I am immensely grateful to the organizers for allowing me to contribute to the discussion last weekend.
Joe Peta (@MagicRatSF) is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book has been named both a Top 10 Sports book by Publisher’s Weekly and a Top 10 Business book by the editors at Amazon.