Reflections from Sloan: Opportunities in Sports Abound

A job in sports is a strange career pursuit. On its face, it covers a broad range of occupations from journalist to front office executive to mascot. Some people know exactly the job they want, while others’ draw to the sports world is more general. Some people have never loved anything like they love sports, and thus they’re not so much drawn to sports so much as they are repulsed by everything else.

“A job in sports” is a strange specificity of “doctor” or “lawyer.” This ambiguity forces it to be accompanied by an explanation or specific examples to adequately explain to Grandma why you’re still looking for a job in your mid-20s.

This career is very much the road less traveled, and as such, it’s very easy to think there are only a few people on it. This was my way of thinking exactly 30 seconds before I walked into the Boston Convention Center to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the beginning of March. After I grabbed my media credential, and made my way upstairs, I soon realized this section of the road less traveled was essentially the 405 between the 101 and Sunset.

The lobby floor was a sea of business casual. What seemed like 10,000 18-40-year-old men were milling around, grabbing pastries, swilling juice, and making small talk with one another. I don’t want to discount the presence of women, because they were certainly there, but the ratio of men to women was easily 50-to-1, if not higher.

In actuality, the conference was attended by just under 3,000 people. I think half of them worked for ESPN (all numbers approximate). Standing in the lobby was overwhelming, not unlike the first day of school. It was the beginning of a very humbling day.

The conference’s opening panel was titled “Revenge of the Nerds.” Though it was not labeled as such, it was essentially the keynote address. Daryl Morey, Nate Silver, Michael Lewis, Mark Cuban, and Paraag Marathe were five of the most recognizable names at the conference. They shared the stage for an hour and spoke about the evolution of the Sloan conference and the infiltration of advanced stats into all areas of sports business. I listened to these five men, each of whom had risen to the highest level of their respective fields, talk about their own career trajectory. At they spoke, I realized exactly how daunting the odds of making it onto that stage really are.

The odds are long not only because of the luck each of those men, Cuban and Lewis included, needed to get them where they are, but also because of the amount of competition in the audience. Intelligence, drive, and knowledge are distinguishing characteristics for anyone to have. Until you’re surrounded by 3,000 people just as if not more intelligent, driven, and knowledgeable than you. Then you’re just one face in the crowd. Like I said, it was a humbling first day.

As with most conferences of this size, there were five panels or presentations going on at any one time. Since I was attending on ESPN’s dime, I felt compelled to attend all the basketball-related panels I could to come up with story ideas. But the playing, measuring, and covering of sports make up only half of the conference. The other half – the one I was more excited for – is the business of sports. Being pulled in two different directions made me feel I was constantly attending the wrong session. By the end of the day, I was most happy to cash in my drink coupon at the bar in the lobby.

The start of the second day felt like déjà vu. The same guys in suits. The same tasteless danishes. The same packed schedule. But this day was different.

The first day was filled with high-level talks from the upper echelons of sports. It was all general managers, owners, and league vice presidents. All the panels were essentially, “Here’s what it’s like at the top of the mountain. Just to let you know, we’re at capacity.” If the first day showed the incredible heights of sports business, the second day was all about breadth. Breadth is much more welcoming. Every panel I attended on Day 2 seemed to open my eyes a bit more. Instead of humility, I got encouragement. Instead of a crowded career path, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

The best opportunities in sports aren’t found in the giant panels sponsored by ESPN, SAP, or Verizon Data Analytics. The opportunities are in the research papers and the small presentations. Here are some of the best examples:

  • Using spatial data provided by the cutting-edge cameras installed in half of the NBA’s arenas, Kirk Goldsberry is pushing the bounds of advanced stats.
  • Blending technology with elite training methods, Dr. Jack Skiba may be pioneering the future of athletic training.
  • On the business side, sports still has a long way to go in terms of adapting to the constantly changing digital world. There is a great deal of opportunity for people with passion and knowledge of the current landscape to evolve traditional marketing roles.
  • In addition, social media engagement is an area leagues and franchises know they need to utilize, but are still in the early phases of developing. Gary Vaynerchuk absolutely took over this panel and delivered some incredibly valuable information about social media marketing.

Every new development in sports needs two types of people. The first type are smart people with the expertise to have novel ideas, and the passion to turn them into a reality. The second type are the people who sell those ideas and make money. What I learned at Sloan is that both people are equally valuable, and there is a ton of opportunity for both if you’re willing to follow your passion.

Unless your last name is Buss or Steinbrenner, you won’t jump directly to the mountaintop in sports. If you can accept that, then you’re already ahead of the game.

You’ll skip the being depressed part and jump right to finding your first opportunity. The landscape of sports business is constantly changing, and thus there are always new opportunities on the edges. Your first shot may not have a recognizable name or fit into your notion of a dream job. But if you constrict your future prospects only to things you can think of right here and now, a career in sports will fly right by you at light speed. Any opportunity is a step in the right direction. Whether you’re a thinker or a seller, following your passion will still get you closer to wherever it is you want to go. And it might even Grandma off your back.

Here are some of my favorite pieces from the conference. Sorry for the ESPN TrueHoop bias. It’s not that I don’t read other writers. It’s just that I only recommend the best.

And in the interests of being even-handed, here are two must-reads with contrarian views:

Ryan Weisert is a guest contributor to Sports MBA Blog who attended the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for the TrueHoop Network Phoenix Suns blog Weisert is currently completing an MBA with an emphasis in marketing at the John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University.