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Sports stat geeks relish the numbers

This photo provided by the MIT shows panelists

This photo provided by the MIT shows panelists of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics annual conference after their discussion in Boston. The speakers, from left to right: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, political and sports statistician Nate Silver, "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, and San Francisco 49ers COO Paraag Marathe who kicked off a new "Revenge of the Nerds" panel during the conference which ends on Saturday. (March 1, 2013) Credit: AP

BOSTON -- Bill Simmons memorably dubbed it "Dorkapalooza,'' but that was way back in 2009, a distant, simpler time.

Since then a couple of funny things have happened to the dorks of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference whom the ESPN columnist helped make famous.

One is that their numbers have grown geometrically, from about 100 when it began in 2007 to 2,700 this weekend. Another is that their work is taken more seriously than ever among teams and fans, especially young ones.

"It's become mainstream because it works,'' said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, a Sloan alum and founder of the event.

Morey spoke early Friday before a ballroom packed on the scale of a Super Bowl halftime show news conference featuring a rock star. And in this world, that's exactly what some of the speakers are.

The first panel discussion, billed "Revenge of the Nerds,'' included Morey, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, 49ers COO Paraag Marathe and statistician Nate Silver. Michael Lewis, whose book "Moneyball'' played a crucial role in the rise of analytics awareness, moderated.

When it was over, a line formed in front of Silver -- to have him autograph programs. That doesn't happen to every panelist, but many are descended upon by students, because Sloan also is part job fair.

For better or worse, hundreds of the brightest young minds in America would love to help the Knicks break down Carmelo Anthony's passing efficiency rather than, say, break down a cure for cancer.

Speaking of Melo, at a discussion called "XY Panel: The Revolution in Visual Tracking Analytics,'' Brian Kopp, an executive at STATS, explained how missile tracking camera technology now is being used to study how and why players move on playing fields -- at 25 frames per second.

One finding of the SportVU system: Teammates make 61 percent of field-goal attempts off passes from Anthony, a category in which he has led the NBA the past two seasons.

That session drew perhaps 1,000 (standing room only) to a secondary meeting room. So did one called "True Performance & the Science of Randomness.'' It featured Jeff Ma, one of the MIT Blackjack Team whizzes portrayed in the book "Bringing Down the House'' and the film "21.''

But the conference extends far beyond the world of hardcore stats geeks. Current and former executives from every major sport showed up, including representatives of 29 NBA teams, NBA commissioner-in-waiting Adam Silver, Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten, Patriots executive Jonathan Kraft, former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, former Colts president Bill Polian and many others.

ESPN became a key sponsor several years ago. "This was a visible way to sort of say to the world, 'We're interested in this,' '' ESPN president John Skipper said. "We want to be a leader in this.''

Not that everyone has been won over by the wonder of analytics. Former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke played the role of old-school curmudgeon, drawing disapproving murmurs from his audience when he challenged the reliance on data and closed with this: "Statistics are like a lamppost to a drunk: Useful for support but not for illumination.''

That sort of thinking is why nearly every expert said the trick is not only mining data but translating it into digestible form for team decision-makers.

Marathe said early on he had to be careful not to come off as "a little Indian kid walking around the office with a bunch of charts.'' But he, and most others, said the climate has improved drastically. "It's exponentially better now,'' Marathe said.

No longer are apologies or explanations necessary for the true believers. At the crowded "Science of Randomness'' session, Morey said, "I thought if we made the title this geeky, we'd get less people. Instead, we got more people.''


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