The sports analyst crowd turns to data to fight diversity

BOSTON (AP) — The number crunchers beat the tee shot and brought a 3-point barrage to the basketball.

Now they’re tackling a more intractable – and important – problem: making the sport more inclusive.

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference this weekend includes at least six sessions on diversity, equity and inclusion, from a discussion of the NFL’s Rooney Rule to one on transgender athletes. They use the same analytics increasingly applied to player performance to show what works, what doesn’t and how much work remains to be done to make the world of sport more inclusive.

“It starts with putting the data in the spotlight,” FanDuel CEO Amy Howe said during a diversity panel. “Even if we don’t like where we started from, we need to know what the starting point is so we can measure our progress.”

First held in 2007 as an all-campus day attracting approximately 175 nerdy sports fans, the analytics conference now brings together more than 2,200 people from hundreds of sports, leagues, teams and schools around the world. one of Boston’s largest convention centers.


As the gathering grew, the field moved into the mainstream, taking over the front office and back office of teams, leagues and media companies.

The subjects also changed.

The early focus on on-court performance – whether deciding when to sacrifice bunt (almost never, it turns out) or going for it on the fourth down (much more often than coaches don’t actually do) – has increasingly focused on the money-making side of sports, including gambling.

Following a national tally of systemic racism, this year’s conference tackles the lack of diversity in sport.

“In our organization, after George Floyd, we had a ton of internal conversations just to get to know each other better on this plane,” Boston Celtics director of player development Allison Feaster said.

Among the topics, Feaster said: vaccine skepticism, business loans for people of color and voting. These conversations often don’t take place in an all-male, monochromatic room.

“These are not vanity measures. When you create a more diverse environment, it absolutely leads to better performance,” Howe said. “It’s a matter of diversity of thought.”

The two-day analysis conference began Friday with a presentation on the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview a minority candidate for top coaching jobs. FanDuel hosted a Q&A on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Another panel addressed the evolution of the fight for diversity; there was also one on Title IX. Saturday’s agenda included a panel on transgender athletes and another on public attraction to women’s sports.

A mentorship program, which pairs students and young professionals from underrepresented backgrounds with industry representatives, has been expanded to 50 people. A women’s networking lunch has become a staple of the conference.

“It’s fantastic that the prevalence of analytics and interest in diversity, equity and inclusion coincide right now,” said Chris Rider, a professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business who has studied the NFL’s Rooney rule.

“We can learn a lot about sport by analyzing sport data – and there are a lot of people here to do that,” he said. “But I think we can also learn lessons that can be generalized to organizations far beyond sport and gain public attention by making changes.”

Rider’s study is inconclusive as to the effectiveness of the Rooney rule. (There are five nonwhite men among the NFL’s 32 head coaches, though minority representation among assistants has risen from 13% to 40%.)

His solution: Extend the rule to other team tasks, with a controlled study to see if it has an effect.

“Every year we have the same conversation: does the Rooney Rule work? And how it was implemented, we really will never know,” Rider said. and we know if it works or not, and if it doesn’t, we’ll find something better.

Others in the conference don’t need more data.

Broderick Hicks, vice president of brands at the Wasserman agency, said he will know things have improved when he is no longer invited to appear on panels promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Yeah, we’ve done this panel over and over again,” he said, semi-seriously hoping this would be the last diversity panel at the conference.

“How about just putting us on the other panels?” “, he said. “Otherwise, we’re just filming, and we don’t really talk.

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