BOSTON — Elbow bumps, fan engagement, gender inequality and Tom Brady were just some of the topics addressed by analytics evangelist Daryl Morey at the 2020 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past weekend.
“Jarrett Stidham is ready,” Morey, one of the conference’s founders, jokingly said about the Patriot rookie quarterback to the crowd of analytics disciples, many of whom were students at MIT and Harvard.
The annual gathering has an almost theatrical ambience, attracting well-known figures such as Giants running back Saquon Barkley, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, retired Celtics player Kendrick Perkins and “Jeopardy!” folk hero Ken Jennings. The event aims to address the many issues facing the industry while serving as a forum to speculate about the long-term future of sports.
For the most part, the conference was “business as usual” in the midst the coronavirus outbreak. Morey, who exudes an eclectic and gregarious energy, instructed attendees to not shake hands with each other and instead bump elbows or flash the Star Trek “Vulcan.”
“More sports should be trading rules,” he said during the “Sports in 2040: Hindsight is 2020” panel.
“Hockey’s penalty box would be great for soccer. Line subs would be great for soccer. We need to start exchanging rules with each other.”
The problems faced by the sports industry are plenty, but Morey seemed to have a solution for every one. The ideas spanned the gamut of realistic, such as in-season tournaments, to downright radical.
“For sure that’s coming to the NBA,” he said. “In Europe, that’s a big thing. You have these big tournaments, it’s great. I know the commissioner is looking at that.”
The 47-year-old Northwestern graduate has served as the Houston Rockets general manager since 2007. His style reliance on analytics has been coined, “Moreyball” after Michael Lewis’ book about baseball’s sabermetrics, “Moneyball.”
He faced backlash in October 2019 after expressing support for the Hong Kong riots over Twitter, a move that prompted China to rescind sponsorships and TV coverage with the NBA. The tweet cost the league an estimated $150 million and $200 million in revenue.
One of the major omni-sport issues addressed during the two-day summit is the imperative to make sports more engaging. Morey was critical of all major sports, including his own.
“Right now, a lot of sports fail, including ours on many nights. You need to have an uncertainty in outcome, and you need everything to have some importance to it and right now, many sports fail in this,” he said.
With viewership on the decline in some sports, including basketball, the push to attract younger audiences is going to play a significant role in future success.
“If you look at the average fan age, and decide which one is the biggest,” Morey said. “Baseball, their fans are going to die first. Then football, then NBA. Natural causes, of course.
“Every sport is going to have to tune that or they’re going to lose. … I look at what people under the age of 25 are doing. Under the age of 25, if you’re not gamifying your game, if you’re not tuning through something interesting constantly — that could be gambling constantly, but it doesn’t have to be — you’re going to lose. Things are going to get shorter and shorter.”
So how can leagues make a sport more interesting? Many of the potential changes discussed fell into three categories: legalized gambling, season schedule (number of games, when those games are played, playoff structure) and the rules of the game itself (field/court size, duration/pace-of-play, etc.).
“I would only let time outs be called if the ball was already dead,” he said of basketball. “You want the flow of the game to happen. I wouldn’t let our stars be fouled out.”
“With automated balls and strikes, [pitchers] could just throw,” he said, referring to MLB’s move towards robotic umpires. “If you can get a strike in there, no one has to be ready. The batter just gets to go and if they’re not there? Too bad. Strike.”
The crowd laughed in amusement.
“But when would the Astros player get the signal?” moderator Katie Nolan quipped back in reference to the recent sign-stealing scandal, a topic that many of the conference’s panelists and presenters took jabs at.
“The cheating scandal for me was a problem for the league office,” Morey said. “If you were allowed to steal signs like in the NBA, then people would make the signs impossible to steal. Have a headset like in the NFL. We have an entire crisis in a sport that could have been solved by the league office just saying, ‘steal whatever sign you want.’”
However the landscape of sports looks in the future, the representation of women will need to keep pace. Morey spoke of the gender imbalance and said it was incumbent on organizations, especially at the lower levels, to make female hiring a priority.
“College and minor league divisions have to for sure hire a lot of women for it to start permeating well,” he told an audience that another panelist, Nate Silver, estimated to be “93 percent male.”
“Because it’s really hard at the pro level to take that leap. A lot of teams have and we have as well, but for it to become where your staff is half, or more than half, or near half, you need a pool of talent to pull from.”